In My Culture

  • Someone will make a move that’s generally known to be okay in the broader context culture, but which would be recognized as mildly offensive or blasphemous if everyone were on the exact same cultural page as my colleague (like offering a handshake to a business partner from Thailand).
  • They’ll pause, and do their best to make that aspect of their culture transparent and accessible and comprehensible—“in my culture, if someone is in the middle of a thought the way I just was, and somebody else interrupts in the fashion that just happened, this is generally interpreted to mean X, Y, and Z about what was going on in both our heads and what our relative positions are and so forth, and it has such-and-such ripples through the social fabric of the conversation, and as a side note I get the sense that you expect me to be able to just pick back up in the middle of the sentence but actually this isn’t a reasonable expectation because in my culture thoughts don’t quite work like that.” The emphasis is always on clarifying the sort of Rube Goldberg causal structure of the culture—if you push button A, you’ll get effect B, and if you want effect C, you should push button D, and here’s why those specific if-then relationships make sense in context.
  • If necessary, they’ll ask for clarification about the other person’s culture. If, say, it wasn’t entirely clear how the other person might have thought their actions were good and correct, or if there’s any lingering resentment about the trespass that might be cleared up by a richer understanding of where the other person was coming from.
  • Occasionally, there’ll be a negotiation about which norms should be adopted in the larger context—whether side A’s norms, or side B’s norms, or a specific compromise between the two, or a set of triggers for distinguishing when to do A versus when to do B. More often, though, it’s simply left up to everyone to do what makes sense, given both the knowledge that things-will-sometimes-land-this-way and the knowledge that this doesn’t compel anyone to change their behavior in any particular way.
  • What interactions between different classes of people are or are not okay (e.g. whether a high-school teacher can or can’t give their students permission to refer to them by their first name).
  • What certain actions are widely interpreted to mean (e.g. “everybody knows” that if you plead the fifth, it’s because you’re guilty).
  • What obligations you have when discussing controversial topics (e.g. whether you have a responsibility to include historical context, or a responsibility to remain dispassionate and logical).
  • What sorts of idiosyncrasies are defections (e.g. whether it’s okay to go to a party and be the only one who remains sober).
  • The “rules of engagement” for various levels of disagreement or antagonism (e.g. whether it’s justified to engage in otherwise-disallowed behavior if it’s in response to someone else doing it first).
  • The order and ranking of swear words and epithets; which curses are mild and which are unspeakable and unforgivable.
  • What things are sacred and what things may be mocked.
  • Whether or not birthdays and anniversaries are special.
  • When and how to decide between focusing on people’s feelings and interpretations in a way that doesn’t particularly care about the truth of the matter (which is often useful for healing and processing) versus focusing on cause and effect and objectively verifiable truth (which is often useful for a lot of other things).
  • What it’s okay for an employer to ask of its employees, and whether or not society should put limits on what adults can freely agree to (e.g. questions about mandated minimum wage).
  • Which side of an argument or disagreement is the default, and which bears the burden of proof, and how that decision is made, and whether it’s made implicitly or explicitly.
  • Whether or not cargo shorts are a valid thing to wear, and whether or not the question “are cargo shorts a valid thing to wear?” is a valid one to pose.

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Duncan Sabien is a writer, teacher, and maker of things. He loves parkour, LEGOs, and MTG, and is easily manipulated by people quoting Ender’s Game.

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Duncan A Sabien

Duncan A Sabien

Duncan Sabien is a writer, teacher, and maker of things. He loves parkour, LEGOs, and MTG, and is easily manipulated by people quoting Ender’s Game.