Cultural Differences, Cont.

The topic of cultural differences is really just one of my favourite things ever.  It’s endlessly fascinating to me.  I am not sure why it’s such a passion, but possibly moving all over the place all my life contributed to it.  For the last couple of years I have been recommending the Great Courses series on cultural intelligence by David Livermore.  I still recommend it as it is deep and extensive.  I have read two or three of his books and did not find them nearly as helpful.

But as I mentioned in his post a couple days ago, my husband and I are totally enjoying another audio book on customs and cultures.  It’s Foreign to Familiar, a Guide to Understanding Hot and Cold Climate Cultures.

We listen to audiobooks on our way to the larger town where I take my Korean class, most of our kids and grandkids live, and where we go to church (also where the husband runs grubhub deliveries sometimes). It’s about a 40 minute drive, so we get a good chunk in.  Last week the author (Sarah Lanier) included some information that absolutely, totally, completely floored me, and I have to admit I didn’t think it was possible.  She knocked the wind right out of me.

Imagine that you are standing with a group of two or three people, and you want to ask one of them out for lunch, but not the other two (the reasons are not mean, just assume they are legit).  Can you do it then and there, or do you need to invite your friend privately?
Imagine that you are standing with a group of two or three people and you are invited to an upcoming birthday party at the home of somebody you all know, but you don’t know for a fact if everybody else is invited.  Do you bring it up or is that rude?
You’re having two of the group over for dinner next week.  Is it rude to start discussing your dinner plans in front of the two who are not invited, or not?

I thought there was only one possible answer to each of these questions.  That answer is, of course it is rude. OBVIOUSLY, you do not talk about most social events in front of people who aren’t invited to them- there is a touch of leeway.  If it’s a wedding where it’s widely known only immediate family can come and you need to nail down a detail for a ride, maybe it’s okay.  But you don’t gush about how excited you are to go somewhere that others are not invited to go.  You don’t issue invites to part of a group but not the other.  You don’t make small talk about what gift you’re getting for a birthday party that others aren’t invited to. It’s just totally rude and inconsiderate.  Everybody knows this, right? Almost everybody.  Let’s not be rude about those who don’t know better, bless their hearts.

I thought that any other answer than the one right answer was basically just rather a sad self-reveal that one has been very badly brought up, at least in this one area.  “Oh, dear.” I would think.  “Your mama forgot to tell you this so now you don’t believe me.  She’d be so upset if she realized.”

I thought anybody who behaved in a way that revealed ignorance of the correct answer was cause for a private little tsk tsk and a more public compassionate tolerance, and some future vigilance and preventative action to avoid being placed in awkward situations through that poor person’s ignorance (through no fault of their own) of proper manners and consideration for others.

I actually once got into, not exactly an argument, but a… tense moment or two over just such a situation.  A friend started to talk with me about some logistics of the two of us arriving at a party and I happened to be with a couple people who were not invited. I quickly cut my friend off and redirected the conversation.  I honestly just assumed my friend hadn’t realized they weren’t invited to the upcoming party and she would be embarrassed to make that mistake, so later in private I said something like, “I hope that didn’t seem awkward,  but I don’t think you knew A and B aren’t invited to that party, and I knew you wouldn’t want to talk about it in front of them so I changed the subject.”

My friend goggled at me and asked why on earth she wouldn’t talk about the party in front of them just because they weren’t invited.  I goggled back, and gasped, “But it’s rude to talk about a party in front of people who aren’t invited,” and she rolled her eyes at me and looked like she thought I was ridiculous and said, “It is not.  Who told you that?  It’s not rude at all.  Why would it be rude?”  I don’t remember what I said, but I know I tried to get out of the discussion as quickly as possible so I didn’t end up insulting her parents who had neglected to teach her this basic etiquette.   I shut my mouth but I still felt sorry for her.

Sarah Lanier says that it is a warm culture idea that it is rude to talk about upcoming invitation type events in front of people who are not invited (In fact, in some hot climate cultures, if you’re talking about an event in front of people that’s kind of an open invitation).  Cold climate cultures have an entirely different set of expectations and standards and this is not an issue there, and it’s not considered rude at all.

Really, to be more accurate, I think you can’t even say it’s not considered rude, because for something to be ‘considered’ rude or not rude, some thought would have had to be devoted in that direction to begin with.  It’s more that it’s just obviously taken for granted that sometimes people are invited to things other people aren’t and this isn’t an issue to be upset about or arrange your conversations around.

I remain flabbergasted.  I mean, I can now accept on an intellectual level that I have been unjust to far too many people in my acquaintance for far too many years and I am embarrassed about that.  I can get that it’s never even been an issue for them in their culture.   But I still honestly cannot wrap my head around the idea that, once somebody points it out to those who never were taught, that still,  they cannot see that it was obviously always an inconsiderate, or at least thoughtless, thing to do.

See that?  That’s a cultural assumption.  If you agree with me, we share some of that same cultural air, and if you think that’s kind of crazy and my attitude there is obnoxious, then you have lived and breathed a different cultural assumption and each of us just cannot get outside of that cultural assumption far enough to really  get the other point of view.  Each of us probably thinks the other just doesn’t really, truly believe what we believe.  We’re brainwashed. We haven’t thought about it carefully enough.  We’re just ….

human beings informed by our own culture and its shared assumptions and values.

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