Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Polite Rudeness

A few days ago I sat down to talk with three of my friends; one American, one Hungarian and one Austrian. The whole conversation started when I told a funny story of something that happened to my at the beginning of last semester...

(Ok, I'm not good at being vague...said story could be an entire blog post on it's own, but let's just say that due to some cultural misunderstandings combined with two awkward personalities, I ended up telling someone who had no romantic interest in me at all that I was not interested in him as anything more than a friend...the situation was not at all helped by the language barrier...needless to say, it was quite uncomfortable for both of us.)

This started a rather interesting conversation about cultural social norms. I explained that much of the misunderstanding had stemmed from the fact that I, as an American, don't always mean what I say.

For example a very common conversation might sound something like this:
"Wow, I haven't seen you in so long! We should really get together soon and catch up."
"Ok, what are you doing next weekend?"
"I'm not sure yet, but we should try to make something happen!"
 "Sounds great, why don't you call me sometime next week?"

Now, there are three possible scenarios that could be derived from this dialog:
A. Both parties actually mean what they say and fully intend to attempt to get together. However, neither party is actually committed to definitely getting together.  
B. One, or both, parties is genuinely glad to see the other person. While there is a possibility of being contacted for later plans, neither person is actually counting on seeing or hearing from the other person again for quite some time. When they do meet again, it's very likely that the above conversation will be repeated. 
C. Neither person actually has any intention of following up in anyway. Actually, both parties would go out of their way to avoid one another to prevent getting stuck into actually committing to spending time together.  

Now, just to make it clear, unless suffering with serious social disabilities, usually both parties understand which category the above conversation falls into. When one person fails to read the signals and recognize this it can be very awkward...usually for the person who does know. Because, of course, the person with the lack of social skills fails to feel awkward at the appropriate times, therefore making everyone else feel more awkward.

Perhaps you have never stopped to think about this social aspect of American culture before, I know that I never did. But I have found that it is very easy to greatly offend friends of other cultures by implying interest in an event but not being committed to it yet. Simple phrases such as "Yeah, that sounds fun!" or "We should totally do that!" can somehow be misconstrued as a actual, definite plan. It seems that other cultures don't agree to do things before deciding if they want to. At home, I could text 10 people in my phone at the same time and say "Hey, want to hang out tonight?" Then wait and see who responded with the best plan before choosing who I would actually go out with...and everyone did it, so it wasn't rude. Now however, most of my friends would be so offended if I made two sets of plans for the same time. The whole idea of go-with-the-flow, just-see-what-happens, and it-depends-on-how-I-feel is completely unacceptable.

As I explained this to my friends, it was interesting to watch their faces. One, nodding in agreement while two others had looks of horrified contempt mixed with dawning clarity as I had just quickly explained many misunderstandings. Seeing this reaction, I asked the question "What other things to Americans do that you consider to be rude?" After laughing about how there are too many things to list, they both agree on one huge annoyance. The use of "How are you?" as a greeting. Why do we ask that when we really don't care or want to know? Most of the time we don't even stop walking long enough to hear a response. I pondered this for a minute...then attempted to explain it. Maybe other Americans might disagree with my theory, but as I like to think that as I have become more "cultured" I might actually know what I am talking about...

It's like when the above dialog, (most) Americans hate feeling awkward, we avoid it at all costs. And nothing can be worse than awkward silences. Let's say two people who know each other are walking through a store. Point A is the position of each person when they spot the other, while point B is the safety after passing. If the greeting starts at point A, than it must be continued until both parties reach point B. A simple "Hello" would leave that awkward moment of silence while being nearest to each other, while a "Hi, how are you?" can get you safety to point B without actually having to enter into a conversation that you don't have time for (because, we are always in a hurry).

While there are times when we might actually care about how the person is, we would just make a date to talk and catch up later...which we may or may not actually intend to keep.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Backpack of Adventures

If there is one thing I have learned in the last month, it's this; It is so much better to NOT have something that you need, than to carry something that you DON'T need. This is not a spiritual analogy, but quite literal! I didn't realize how heavy clothes can become...and most the time I don't even wear half of what I pack. Don't be surprised  if  when I become one of those world travelers that only brings two pairs of underwear and washes them in the sink every other day. Although I have not yet sunk to this frightening place, I can see that I am now capable of leaving out three extra pairs of underwear just to make my backpack lighter.

The longer I am here, the more stuff that I accumulate and the less I want any of it. I desperately need to get some "spring" cleaning done. The problem is that I am the worst pack-rat ever! I admit it, I may even be a trash hoarder... Some day you may see me featured on a TLC special, sitting in a small corner surrounded by rotting napkins, business cards, receipts, leaves, and pens gathered from around the world. My children will be pleading with me "Please get rid of this stuff, it's going to kill you" and I will respond with a firm "But, think of how cute this little ice cream napkin would look in a scrapbook...I found it in a trash can in Slovenia. Can you believe someone just threw it out?!"

But, although I am still gathering all sorts of useless clutter, I am coming to the realization that my standard of living is changing. I actually enjoy living without things that I really thought I needed...things like a dishwasher, a clothes dryer, a blow dryer...(did you know that when you leave things sitting out for a little bit, that they actually dry of their own!?), a shower everyday, a cell phone, a microwave, a car (why are Americans too proud to use public transportation!? It's so much cheaper than car payments, insurance and gas!), I don't have to wear so much make up, curl my hair, and I no longer worry about repeating outfits.

While I am learning to live without somethings that I used to consider to be essential, I have taken drastic backwards step in one area. Caffeine. I shouldn't really be surprised, after all I live in Europe. It's only natural that I become a hopeless addict. Hopeless addict = caffeine headaches, mood-swings, and sluggish behavior if I don't satisfy my cravings before 10:00am. Yes, I have tried to change my ways, but the withdraws are too painful to endure. Simply, coffee has become necessary for me to keep up with my fast paced life.

At the end of last spring, I remember talking about how I was going to spend the summer laying by the pool, reading, getting ahead on homework, and....blogging. Clearly, things have not gone according to plan, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I have so many stories to share that I don't even know where to start. Although I have said this many times already, I do plan to get caught back up on my blog. Hopefully I will find  make the time to start writing some of my experiences down. But for now, you have to be content with this silly random little tidbit about traveling light...