Monday, 22 July 2013

Fighting Taboos 1

When I was a child, I believed (because presumably I'd been told) that people from other countries were different.

I wasn't told they were bad, you understand. My family were rather more open-minded than that. But they were ordinary working-class English people, used to ordinary working-class English things, and in their minds that was the default, it was normal, and everything and everybody else was "different to us."

So, I got a feel for this word "different." And (importantly) not as a pejorative. It was sort of "prepare yourself" rather than "avoid." And thankfully it was never anything worse than that.

The effect of this was, I think, unintentional, but should have been obvious. It made me curious. It made me want to experience these different people.

As I got older, moved in varied social circles, and travelled around I learned they were actually the same.

Oh sure, they may speak with a different accent, or indeed in another language. They may dress differently, decorate their homes differently, eat different foods, and listen to different music. But really, they are the same. As time has gone on that has been reinforced time after time, and the cultural differences are still as interesting but even less important.

There are national attitudes, certainly. You can get past those. They are no different to individual personality quirks. People vary and some are nicer than others. Find the nice ones. They are spread all over the world.

The internet has had a powerful effect on breaking down these ideas of "different." Those who take the time and mix with people internationally will discover far more similarities than differences, while at the same time learning to look at things from another angle. Broaden their perception.

I think this is what those who stick to "their own" are afraid of. That they may be forced to see themselves through foreign eyes. That somebody may be seeing them as "different".

To paraphrase Johnny Depp, what we think of as the most normal things we do, are in fact often truly bizarre.

It is very good for us to think about our everyday behaviours, and identify which are no more than habit. And much of it is. There is nothing wrong with that, there's nothing wrong with culture generally, but it's vital to be aware of it, and not allow it to become a sacred cow. It requires awareness. It requires honesty.

You've read before, perhaps, my experience (and it was a powerful one) of growing up not following a cultural habit. I'm English, and I don't drink tea. This had a profound effect on the way I think about norms and etiquette. It taught me things you can't learn from books.

It would stop people in their tracks. I may as well have suddenly become green-skinned. They didn't know what to DO. Offering tea was a ritual. It allowed people to cover up any insecurities they had about meeting you by busying themselves with it.

And when I refused it, politely, they would desperately try to cling to the script, as it were, but you could hear the papers rustling. Their manners forbade them from reacting negatively, but now they had to DECIDE what to do next. It threw them.

If this sounds ridiculous, well, it was. Completely ridiculous. But I watched it happen over, and over, and over.

I have been told, as I'm sure you have, on the topic of travelling overseas etc, that when certain things are offered to you, it is very rude to refuse, because it is a cultural ritual. It is that same fear. It's not true hospitality either, and let's not forget this. Cultural sensitivity is a grand thing, but it's utterly ridiculous that a visitor should be obliged to eat or drink something unpleasant so as not to offend. If declining graciously is not good enough, because it bursts their ritual bubble, it's time for them to re-think their habits, and see what their objective is. Because if it is supposedly making people welcome, they may have lost the plot.

No, I don't give any leeway to my "own" people, or to anyone else either. This is NOT the same as saying "Behave like me", the old colonial thing, before anyone gets their dander up. I treat everyone equally, and logically. If we have cultural differences, that fine, that's excellent, that's interesting. But like all differences, including religious ones, there is the penis analogy. Yes, I said PENIS.

It's fine to have one.
It's fine to enjoy it and be proud of it.
But don't get it out in public.
Don't frighten the children with it.
Don't force it on anyone.

In our modern multi-cultural world, where we travel around and run into people doing things differently all the time, we're getting better, generally, at live and let live. While it hasn't actually gone away, racism is at least socially taboo. That's a start. Attitudes towards other religions...we're still working on that, and it's going to take a long time, but again, increasingly it's not considered acceptable to be a religious bigot.

It seems to be harder to deal with culture because it's not biological and it's not sacred. People often behave as if it is, but it isn't. Culture is optional. People stick to it for familiarity or comfort. They also use it as an excuse to gain or keep an advantage. "But we've always done it like that" is usually the cry from those with a vested interest in the status quo.

I'm one of those people who annoys others by saying "But you could do it like this instead." They squirm. They don't want to change. They don't want to think outside the box.

Above all, they don't want to admit that many of the things they do are nothing more than habit. They defend it as being normal behaviour (and therefore better than your weirdness, thank you very much) and make you, the iconoclastic type, out to be the bad person.

I shall continue to rock boats by forcing people to think rather then blunder along, that's what I do. I do it in writing, and I do it in person. Some people really don't like it. I think different is good. But only if that difference is genuine. If you rebel against one culture only to completely buy into another one (think of youth tribes) then you have completely missed the point.

What connects humanity is our similarities, and those are what matter. Things like real hospitality, kindness, caring, helping one another, sharing the planet's resources, and generally getting along. Those are not culturally-based and they are not dependant on ritual. All that other stuff is decorative but not fundamentally important.


  1. You had tea - I had alcohol. I don't do alcohol. Yes, I might like a G&T every once in a blue moon, likewise a glass of wine or a rum & coke at Christmas. But that's it. I've had to explain it all through my "grown up" life - and during my teens to late thirties I wound up drinking stuff I really didn't like. Now, I've stopped worrying. :)

  2. I had 2 concurrent, diametrically opposed, upbringings.. My Grandparents, who actually raised me - were very much of the mind to follow ALL rituals and all things "Proper", along with the "Children should be seen and not heard" thing.. One of the most common things I heard was "What would the neighbours think?".. Everything I did was coloured with that phrase..

    Then there was my Dad, who I spent weekends with.. he took me to PowWows.. he introduced me to Gay people, Hippies, Power Brokers, he taught me that everyone, regardless of what they look like, what their culture is, all want one thing.. love and respect.. if they earn respect..the rest follows.. and he meant it.. EARN respect.. But laugh, make noise, have fun... learn about others.. give and take of ideas and cultures.. try new things, but it's ok to say No Thank You.. respectfully. And to hell with what the neighbours think... think for yourself instead..