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…