When I tutored immigrants in English, my students would not look at me. Their eyes would slip to their books, to the table, to the floor –I would get frustrated and speak louder to try to attract their attention.
I diagnosed the error as the fault of the student – disinterest or distraction – and did not realize that the eye contact I expected was as foreign to the students as the English sentences I was speaking. I read downcast eyes as signs of shame, guilt, or dishonesty. For my students, they meant the opposite – refusing to meet my eyes was a sign of respect as much so as my handshakes, “sir”s and “ma’am”s.
As a white, middle class American, I am part of a prestige culture, and as such am rarely penalized for not understanding another person’s cultural norms. In school, work, and social life, I am rewarded for acting in ways that have been instilled in me since birth while others who have not learned these arbitrary cues are perceived as less motivated, less intelligent, or less trustworthy.
Part of my privilege comes from not needing to explain why I think the way I think or act the way I act, but to better understand myself in relation to others, I need to be aware not just of their culture, but of my own.
A few months ago, I began to keep a list – a sort of shorthand guidebook to the culture I was raised in (again, white, middle class), both the pieces that I value and pieces that I hesitate to claim. The list feels narrow and incomplete, as of course it is, but it also feels familiar: my way of looking myself in the eyes.
- My culture is overtly, even overbearingly friendly. We plaster smiles on our faces and greet even strangers with a nod and a smile. We were taught from infancy to say “please” and “thank you” and we thank everyone from bus drivers to cashiers to people holding open the door. These smiles are neither flirtatious nor a sign of illness – in my culture, they are basic politeness.
- Despite this front of friendliness, my culture values privacy, a separation between home and public life. “Small talk” stays small. “How are you,” is only a formality, rattled off in passing. In the call and response of our greetings, “Doing well, thanks, and you,” is the only acceptable response. We do not inquire after the health of our coworker’s relatives. We do not ask someone else’s age, ancestry, or whether they are eating well. These questions, however well-intentioned, are intrusive.
- In my culture, we are fiercely independent. Children move out of their parent’s houses early and are encouraged to follow their careers across state lines and time zones. Parents, when they are old, are sent to live in care facilities. These actions seem to be cold and unfeeling, but they are usually rooted in love. Parents believe that the best way to love their children is to encourage their independent journeys. So far separated from their parents’ lives, children in turn may think it more loving (or convenient) to pay others to care for their parents when their time comes.
- My culture is territorial. Children want their own rooms, and everyone craves personal space (so as to be able, at any moment to stretch out your arm to your fingertips and not graze the face of another). Physical touch is rare except between intimates or in the firm, brief handshake that men and women alike exchange upon meeting.
- My culture is loud. We get excited about small things – rainbows and discounted groceries. We say “Wow!” more often than you would think necessary.
- In my culture, we walk with the confidence of not being stopped and speak with the confidence of not being questioned. The best students are the ones who talk back to the professor, and the best employees are those who challenge their bosses. We can be demanding. We do not like to hear the word “no.”
- We say, in my culture, that people are defined not by who they are but by what they do. Nepotism is a dirty word. We admire the self-made man.
- In part because of our confidence and independence, we mistrust authority and hierarchies. We call our bosses by their first names. This does not mean that authority and hierarchies do not exist, only that we prefer them to be hidden by public friendliness. We want our leaders to be accessible. We love to decide things by committee.
- My culture lives on a schedule and we are always hurrying to keep it. We put time limits on everything from birthday parties to church services. Time is rigid and inflexible, and to be “on time” is already to be late. Punctuality is a virtue, so connected with reliability that its absence is a vice. “time is money/ efficiency”
- In my culture, what matters is the future. In the “melting pot” we claim, ancestry and history are easily forgotten. Too often, we find the past irrelevant. Even the present serves only as a springboard for the next day. We mistrust people short on hope, which is why some shrink from scientists with grave prognoses or accusations of blindness against other social problems. We are big dreamers, big hopers, and big optimists.
- My culture is not normal, there is no such thing as normal. We are one culture among many, we have much to offer and even more to learn.