Tag Archives: polite

You’re Fat! A Look at Global, Weight-Related Bluntness

OK, so I may have put on 10 pounds since I got married. This would have been fine had I stayed away from major gatherings like the wedding I attended yesterday.  But such was not my fate.  It was a very culturally diverse Los Angeles wedding and many in the crowd had not seen me since my wedding five months ago.  Reactions to my more “jolly” physique ranged from a quick look to the waistline to the obligatory “marriage treating you well, huh?” and I barely avoided the more direct, “You’re fat” that my wife says my mother-in-law is more than capable of delivering with characteristic Filipino weight-related bluntness.

How to react?

How do you bounce back from a bout of bluntness?  Do you laugh it off?  Do you take offense?  In answering that question it helps to remember what cultural context you are dealing with and whether the bringer of the bluntness meant for his or her statement to be offensive, whether it was a joke or whether it was meant as advice.

Direct vs indirect cultures

When I was studying Spanish in Latin America, I quickly learned that nicknames were often physical.  As people warmed to you they could assign you a completely arbitrary nickname like “gordo” (fat) or “flaco” (skinny) and you weren’t supposed to take it personally.  It was a sign of endearment.  Sometimes the descriptions didn’t quite fit – as in someone called “gordo” wasn’t too tubby in real life.  I was lucky to have friends that explained the custom to me.  If you tried calling random friends “fat one” in Swedish culture you would quickly discover a less charitable side to the Scandinavian experience.

The difficulty in knowing whether something is culturally appropriate is that general assumptions about direct vs indirect cultures don’t always apply.  For example (and this statement is going to revel in stereotype), American culture and communication is often seen as being fairly blunt and Filipino culture is seen as being concerned with face-saving and polite indirectness.  If you are in need of help from a friend in the US, you probably would just tell the friend you need help.  You may end up doing the same in the Philippines, but depending on the situation and how sensitive the actual verbalization of the need for help, Filipinos may want you simply to see their situation and offer to help.  This is obviously a tough one to navigate and most non-Filipinos have to learn how best to handle sensitive situations through trial and error.

Here’s the catch though:  A newcomer to Filipino and American culture may decide that since American culture is “blunt” and Filipino culture is “indirect”, it’s OK to tell someone they are fat in the US but that you can’t do so in the Philippines.  NOT SO.  Most Americans would rather do themselves bodily harm than have a heartfelt one-to-one with a chubby friend regarding his or her weight issues.  Walk into a Filipino Christmas gathering though and a number of aunties will take it upon themselves to, regardless of your gender, ask you “What happened?  Why are you so fat??”  It’s mortifying but true.

Chime in or stay out of it?

So do you join in as a newcomer?  Should you, as a traveler in Latin America or crasher of Filipino potlucks, declare friends and acquaintances fat or skinny?  I would go with a cautiously adventurous approach.  Often there’s an initiation period when you move somewhere or otherwise join a cultural group.  Much the way it can be annoying when someone joins your friendship circle and starts trying to use clearly “inside” humor too quickly, trying too hard to be funny or to fit in, often backfires.  Take some time to settle in, spend your social capital carefully and get some local advice when in doubt about what to say.

And now I’m going running…

 

LEAVE A COMMENT

LIKE CULTUREMUTT ON FACEBOOK

Bjorn Karlman

 

Rudest Cities on the Planet

Angry driver with dollar bills.
Rude in any language: Moneygrubbing taxi drivers

Get any two world travelers bored enough and they’ll start trading war stories about the rudest cities they’ve ever visited.  This, of course, is a classic exercise in one-upmanship. The first guy will make his obligatory point about the obnoxious Parisian shop keeper he met: “he spoke English perfectly but wouldn’t help me.”

The fellow traveler will counter with some horror story about being cut off right by the turnstiles for the Hong Kong MTR  (Mass Transit Railway), getting elbowed while boarding her train and then pickpocketed – all on a simple two-stop trip to Kowloon Station to catch her airport connection: “They even stole my ticket!!”  The back and forth can continue for huge stretches of time.

I wanted to get past the hearsay and the anecdotes so I was intrigued when I came across a Reader’s Digest (Canada) article titled “How Polite Are We?”. Reader’s Digest tested people’s politeness by sending undercover reporters, 50% men, 50% women into 36 cities for the following three tests:

“• We walked into public buildings 20 times behind people to see if they would hold the door open for us.

• We bought small items from 20 stores and recorded whether the sales assistants said thank you.

• We dropped a folder full of papers in 20 busy locations to see if anyone would help pick them up.”

A full scientific test was not attempted by the study but it was the largest of its kind ever attempted. Every positive outcome was awarded a point and negative outcomes got no points.  A city could score a maximum of 60 points.  Here were the five lowest scoring cities:

[TABLE=2]

Reporters had stories to illustrate rudeness in the low-scoring cities.  In Mumbai:  “When our female reporter bought a pair of plastic hair clips at a convenience store, sales assistant Shivlal Kumavat turned his back on her as soon as she had paid. Asked why, the 31-year-old was unapologetic. ‘Madam, I am not an educated guy. I hand goods over to the customers, and that’s it.’ ”

“When an affluent-looking lady in her 40s failed to hold a door in Moscow’s Prospekt Vernadskogo, she chided us: ‘I’m not a doorman. It’s not my job to hold doors. If someone gets hurt, they should be quicker on their feet.’ ”

There were, of course, other stories, but even more interesting were the top scorers:

[TABLE=3]

Looking suspect yet?  I would suggest that the rationale behind this survey is the same that leads to tourists thinking that a city is rude and obnoxious:  a foreign set of cultural expectations are applied to the local scene to determine politeness.  Case in point: the door-holding test is unreliable as there are parts of the world, particularly parts of Asia, where holding the door for others is not necessarily considered a sign of politeness.  It is no surprise then, that Western cities like New York and Toronto scored highly and cities like Mumbai and Kuala Lumpur fared far worse.

Want to have positive experience in a new city?  Do your homework and know what to expect. Just because your own cultural niceties are not commonplace doesn’t mean that people are intentionally being rude to you.  So take courage, hop on the subway and throw some elbows.

Share your views, LEAVE A COMMENT

Bjorn Karlman

How to Tell Anyone, Anywhere That They Are Not Funny

2477I’ll admit it: I am terrible at telling jokes.  I’ve got two or three reliable ones but even they fall flat with alarming frequency.  I always mess something up.  I forget the punch line; I omit a key detail; I forget where I am and tell a joke that only works in Sweden – you get the picture.  I could live in denial and make believe that peoples’ laughter comes from them laughing “with” me as opposed to them laughing “at” me, but my friends have disabused me of any such thinking.  They’ll try to assure me that I can be humorous in a very general sense but then they get a serious look on their faces and say, with all the love they can muster, “But I really don’t get your jokes.”  Now let me be clear:  I have not only been told this in one country: worldwide friends have told me one way or another to steer clear of the jokes.  As I have picked myself up and dusted myself off each time, I have taken note of how people around the world tell you that you are not funny.  Here’s my guide – region by region – to telling anyone, anywhere, just that:

Scandinavia

Hit them straight.  Scandinavians are fairly direct in their communication style.  “I don’t understand” is fine if you really don’t get it.  If you are friends with a Scandinavian you can be even more direct: “That wasn’t funny at all”.  Scandinavians are used to this as their brand of humor is, to say the very least, different.  And it goes both ways, they will tell you that your jokes suck without blinking an eye.

United Kingdom

A little more tact may be in order.  I personally think Brits are some of the funniest people on Earth and love the likes of Ricky Gervais (British version of “The Office”) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat). Some people really do not like British humor though, and it’s OK to say so.  Brits love apologies (sit in any British train station and listen to announcements about train delays or cancellations: The announcer will apologize for EVERYTHING) so try, “Sorry, I think this British humor is a little over my head, give me a few weeks and maybe I’ll pick it up…”  Of course, if the intent is to avoid hearing any more from the amateur comic in question, don’t invite them to keep trying out their material on you.

United States

Laugh.  Americans are a tough bunch to speak for in any general sense because of the sheer diversity in represented cultures.  But warmth goes a long way, so show some appreciation for the fact that your American friend was trying to be funny.  If you are from a more reserved culture, realize that while people in some cultures communicate through understatement (the Brits are a perfect example), Americans often communicate through over-statement.  They may say something is “the funniest thing ever” or “the most hilarious show I have seen in my entire life”.  They probably don’t mean it. Smile enthusiastically, laugh a little and then switch the channel to FOX News – it won’t be funny at all.

South America

When I lived in South America I met some people that I found really funny and some people that made me want to take a fork to my eye.  Naturally, the cultures I came across – Peruvian, Argentine, Uruguayan, Brazilian, whatever – all came with their own brand of humor.  Most of the humor I came across was delivered with high volume, enthusiasm and a lot of passion.  Trust me: You looked like an idiot if, after the punch line, you just sat their and scratched your head.  So here’s what I did: I laughed at everything and then, if I didn’t get it, turned to local friends and whispered, “Why was that funny?”  South American communication stresses diplomacy and warm interpersonal relations so if I did admit to not finding something funny, I first made sure my relationship with the joker was established and safe.

Asia

Bluntness is a bad idea in Asia.  Throughout my childhood in Hong Kong and the Philippines,  I heard stories of rude, clumsy foreigners and their embarrassing antics. Communication had to be indirect, polite and always had to allow for the other party to “save face” (maintain dignity/honor).  So you did NOT tell people they were not funny.  I felt that some of the best communication in Asia happened through careful situational maneuvering.  So, if someone is not funny, smile at their overtures and then tell some of lamest jokes you know in a long, agonizing sequence (explain them as being really funny where you come from so as to avoid looking facetious).  The original offender, so completely bored by your bad jokes, will likely never try to tickle your funny bone again.

One last word – humor, if culturally appropriate, is extremely effective in communicating and problem-solving across cultural barriers.  So if you are traveling or if you are meeting with people from different parts of the world, pay special attention to what they find funny.  A shared laugh covers a multitude of cultural missteps and blunders.  Often, the first sign that you are accepted by people is that they start joking with you.  So let loose and laugh with the people you meet.  And when you come across the obligatory bore with his tired jokes, smile, remember where you are, and tell him what he needs to hear, how he needs to hear it.

Be part of CultureMutt:  LEAVE A COMMENT

Bjorn Karlman