Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It's Cultural

A friend of mine once explained everything she did (or everything that she did that was peculiar) as--It's cultural. She was just from the south.

I was thinking about cultural differences the other day, how one word or habit doesn't translate exactly into another.

How, for example, in this country, if a person bows his head and fiddles with his lap, you might assume he is texting. In France, I am told, it's very rude to look down and do something with your hands like that. One makes a very different assumption.

Once I asked a French guest what he found most peculiar about Americans. We were driving on the freeway at the time. He said, Americans pass on the right. And then he grinned. And they are SO extra-extra large. You guys need to stay on the ground. I don't want to fly in an airplane with too many Americans.

A Spanish friend once commented on the Americans love of violence, esp. on TV. Our comfort with violence, she said, is really weird. She said that in Spain folks don't relax by watching Arnold. At the same time, they aren't alarmed by nudity. A woman's bare breasts, for example, are seen in an ad that everyone watches on TV.

So Americans, she concluded, are more comfy letting their kids see folks bloodied and blown to bits than letting them see bare breasts. Is that so?

Then she asked . . .

Why is it okay for one president in the U.S. to invade Iraq and cause so much death and destruction, and why is it not okay for another to have an affair with a girl called Monica.
Why is the first considered a good Christian, no matter how many lives he wastes. The other is considered morally corrupt?

I attended a lecture once where a Tibetan monk laughed about how Americans don't think they will ever die. They think reincarnation means they can live forever. That Buddhism is like a Disney movie. My lovely young Americans, he said, please understand. We are all mortals here. Yes, even the Dalai Lama. If you learn nothing else from me, please learn this one lesson. You will die.


Lyle Daggett said...

This whole subject has long fascinated me. It's difficult, I think, to describe one's own culture. There's so much in it that one tends to take for granted, as the obvious or "normal" kind of thing to do.

I've read (though haven't verified this firsthand) that there are some places, cultures, in the world where -- in some circumstances it's considered polite to stare intently at someone, in fact might be considered impolite not to, for example when a teacher is explaining something to students.

Americans, by contrast, tend to look away often during conversation. Probably (I've always kind of assumed) a result of not wanting to be thought to be staring too long or too intently.

A friend (American) who traveled in Germany went to a cafe for lunch. She was sitting at a table, and a man, a total stranger, came and sat at the same table, said nothing, began looking over the menu. After a few moments he became aware of her glancing a little nervously at him. "You are from the United States?" he said.

"Yeah..." she answered cautiously.

"Here," he explained calmly, "we sit with people we don't know."

An aquaintance who visited the Netherlands said that she found the common custom there was not to close curtains or pull down window shades, that doing so might be taken as a sign that you were hiding something.

I've often found that "culture shock" or milder culture surprise will happen with small things, everyday details. Traveling in another country you'll be prepared for the language to be different (depending on the country), the money, some of the food may be a little unfamiliar, etc.

What will cause culture shock (or surprise) will be something like: light switches outside the room instead of inside, the toilet is in a different room from the bathtub, the hot water faucet is on the right side instead of the left side (or no hot water faucet, only cold).

It's not always necessary to go to another country to encounter culture shock, in my experience. I was once in a city in the southwestern United States where most of the the buses only ran about every 45 minutes, they stopped running at about 10:30 at night, and they didn't run at all on holidays. That, for me, was culture shock.

Nin Andrews said...

That is interesting. Yes, Europeans tend to come/talk too close to our faces, too. As a kid, I loved to stare, and my mom was always correcting me. Stop staring! It's rude! she would say. I l also like to watch how people sit in airports. You go to the gate and watch it fill, and everyone tries to sit out of sight-line of others, not right next to them, politely allowing space while intimate scenes and business deals are shouted into cell phones . . .

Mohamed Mughal said...

You've validated my belief in (and practice of) absurdism.