I experienced some pains this week of relearning social norms and basic manners in this culture. I am no longer new here, but it did remind me that because I wasn’t raised here there will continually be situations where I am needing to learn. When we are brought up in a particular culture we pick up on things that we don’t even realize and since we have been here for a while now I thought I was becoming immune to cultural mishaps. However, this week proved to me again that I have to be a continual learner, no matter how long I live somewhere.
I was abruptly jerked into the reality that my arrogance of feeling adjusted to this culture has aided in both of the culture mistakes I made this past week.
While visiting some friends in a different city we went out to dinner at a place we don’t have in the city we reside. More than ten people were there and we were laughing and eating delicious food. Meanwhile, me and the ten-year-old boy at the other end of the table were being culturally insensitive. In my defense, his was worse than mine. He kept asking if the pepperoni on his pizza is made of pig while sitting directly across from three people who don’t eat “pig” for religious reasons. I, on the other hand, was much more graceful in my cultural mistake. I was sitting next to this girl I very much enjoyed hanging out with during our week in town and I complimented her ring. She then quickly took off one of the rings on her fingers and told me she wanted me to have it. Instantly, I thought, “Oh no, what have I done. She feels like she has to give it to me because I complimented it.” I refused profusely, but she then kept asking if I liked it, which put me in an awkward situation. If I said I liked it then she would insist more that I have it, but if I said I didn’t her feelings would be hurt and she would be confused about why I said I liked it in the first place.
We sat there at a standstill with the ring on the table for more than 15 minutes. She refused to pick it back up and put it on her finger and I wasn’t about to take her ring that she was just wearing.
In the middle of this whole charade I remember my grandpa who has traveled quite a bit tell me that there are certain cultures if you compliment something then they feel obligated to give it to you as a gift. I knew that is exactly what she was doing with me and she was being extremely pushy about it. In not knowing what to do, I laughed and told her I was getting uncomfortable. Her face fell, her eyebrows burrowed and she looked incredibly confused. I then realize I had just offended her and what she was doing as an act of generosity and duty. I then picked up the ring once I realized I had gone too far and put it on my finger and thanked her profusely for her kindness.
The very next day I offended at least three people in an airport while we were in a rush not to miss our flight.
I was starving and it happens to be a terrible combo to be hungry and running late to a flight. I knew we wouldn’t be able to eat when we landed so now was my only opportunity. I ran upstairs to the food court to try to find something I could order and have prepared quickly. I found a smoothie place that looked healthy and quick. While I was waiting for our food to be blended I put my foot up on a nearby chair to tie my shoelace that had become untied amidst the commotion. My jeans were tight and I didn’t want to bend down all the way to tie it and I thought nothing of it in the moment. About three seconds after my shoe was tied and I was watching them make my food I heard a voice behind me trying to get my attention. I turned around to a angry looking man using a very rude tone. He said, “YOU NEED to wipe off that chair we are sitting there.” Nobody was sitting within two chairs of the one I used. I just looked at him blankly and confused about his rudeness, because there was no visible mark to be wiped off. He then continued to raise his voice telling me to wipe off the chair. I began looking around for napkins and I didn’t find any. He was getting more frustrated as I frantically looked for something to undue my mistake and I finally just grabbed another chair and replaced the one I put my foot on. He was still very angry, but he was no longer the problem.
All the sudden this lady who had apparently been eating nearby and watching this whole shoelace tying debacle unfold decided it was her turn to shame me. She started yelling and telling me I needed to clean off the chair. I looked blankly at her in confusion with now my own anger on the rise. She said, “You have very bad manners. So tacky. You need to clean off the chair. Very very bad manners. I can’t believe you think that is okay?!” She was shaking her head with disapproval using the most judgmental tone she could find in her queue and I was over it. I decided to take the higher road and shoot her a dirty look while turning around and resolving to ignore her, which is totally the right thing to do at that moment.
I walked away with our smoothies feeling guilty, angry, shamed and all around like a failure. I thought of how I should have figured out how to wipe the stupid chair off. I should have not been rude back to the lady. Lastly, I wish I got real food, because this smoothie wasn’t going to cut the hunger.
It feels terrible to fail culturally. It doesn’t matter how socially adept you are or how good you think you can read situations it happens. We all do it.
The feelings of confusion blended with frustration are hard to cope with in the moment. It’s weird to be in a situation and not know the right thing to say or do to get out of it or to avoid it in general. Most of us are raised to be socially and self aware. When I fail at being well informed on appropriate behavior I feel like a kid again who should know better. It was me with the ten year old boy making cultural mistakes at the same table. I have relearn how to socialize and be aware of new things in this environment. Some of the things I have to become informed about and aware of are different than the ones I have learned through the course of my life in my home culture.
When I make mistakes, act out and respond poorly; it reminds me that being a learner in this culture is a continuous thing. I need to humble myself and realize I will make mistakes. When I make mistakes I need to not receive the shame that can so easily come but instead cultivate a safe area to mess up culturally and give myself grace. It’s not easy, especially, when it seems basic and you feel small for not knowing something you feel like you should.
Jesus took the same position here on earth. He came here not as an adult and someone who knew everything already (even though he could have), but instead he took the position of humility. He came down to the level of the people he met to feel their pain, show compassion and heal their wounds. He had to learn to walk, eat and talk like the people he met to relate with them. He had to learn, just like we have to learn.
Author’s Bio: Brie, an American, a wonderful wife. She is an amazing presenter, a designer and an excellent writer who has written many articles for different purposes.