Rudeness is in the eye of the beholder

I went to London recently for a Messianic gathering, and apparently managed to offend someone. Interestingly, the same person also managed to offend me, but I didn’t tell him that. I feel it’s not always appropriate to tell people when they’ve offended you – we humans step on each other’s toes so much, it’s just not realistic to make a song and dance of each and every time it happens, we’d get nothing else done. There’s a time and a place for saying “hey, you’ve stepped on my toe” and there’s plenty of times and places for just sighing inwardly and thinking: ah, yes, humans, that’s what we’re like, I also step on other people’s toes, so let’s move on.

Anyway, where was I? ah yes, this guy at the meeting in London. Here’s the scenario:

We’re in the middle of a day’s meeting, which includes sitting and listening to talks but it also includes standing to sing worship songs and stuff, with the words of the songs shown by OHP on the wall in the front. But, despite being called an overhead projector, this thing is not projecting the words high enough over the heads of the tall people in front of me, so, as a short person, my choice is to stay in my place and mumble, or go stand somewhere else where I can actually see the words and sing.

That’s why I wasn’t in my place when this guy walked in – I was standing somewhere else and singing. He walked in part-way through and took the seat next to mine. When the singing was over and the talk was starting, I went back to my seat and listened to the talk. Or tried to – the guy sitting next to me kept talking to the guy sitting next to him, which I found very distracting. I thought this was highly disrespectful of the speaker, and inconsiderate of those of us who had travelled many miles especially to hear these talks.

At the end of the day’s programme, when we were singing one last song before attacking the tea and cake, this guy turned to me and introduced himself, saying: you sat next to me and didn’t say hello, and in my culture that’s not normal. And the way he said it, it sounded like he felt I’d been rude.

Whereas I actually think it’s bad manners to walk in in the middle of a talk or a service and talk to people – I feel that if people are listening to a talk, you shouldn’t disturb them; and that if people are praying or singing worship songs, you should respect that – they’re [hopefully] focusing on God, and who are you to distract people from focusing on the Almighty?

So, the way I see it, if I walk in part-way through something like that, I should sit down as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, and definitely not turn to other people and start saying hello and stuff. When it’s over, or there’s a break, that’s when I think is the right time to turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself.

But obviously different people have different takes on this issue, as happens with so many things. It’s so easy to get offended by someone’s behaviour just because you have different expectations, different norms you grew up with or different customs you’ve got used to and you just don’t realise that the other person isn’t being deliberately rude, they’re just behaving in a way that is normal to them.

When I first came to live in England, I offended people a lot, just by behaving in a way that is normal in Israeli culture. It took me a while to learn some of the niceties, to get into the habit of saying please and thank you and sorry and “would you please”… and, oh yes, not to reach for stuff at the other end of the dining table but to politely ask someone to pass you the salt or whatever. And then when I went for my first visit home after six years here, I was so used to the English ways that I nearly went hungry…

Because one of the differences between English culture and Israeli culture is this: when you go to visit someone, if you’re English then you wouldn’t touch the food until the host offers it, but Israeli hosts don’t usually offer it, we just put the food on the table and assume people understand that it’s there to be eaten, because, well, duh… So if you were English and didn’t know, you could easily go home afterwards saying: these people were so rude, they put food on the table just to tantalise me, I could only look but not touch! And your Israeli hosts would think: what a rude person, we put such nice food on the table and he didn’t deign to have any, our food is obviously not good enough for him!

So easy to take offence where none is intended – because we use our own cultural norms as the standard by which we measure everyone else’s behaviour.

Another thing I’ve learned about English culture over time, which really surprised me, was that they consider it bad manners to say: no, that’s wrong. (Actually, I should qualify this – it’s not all over England, I’ve been told that in the north the standards are quite different. I live in the south.) if you disagree, you are supposed to couch it in some sort of face-saving stuff like: oh, ah, yes, I see what you mean, yes, and also… I’ve watched them do this and it seems utterly baffling to me, it’s so hard to follow a debate when people are unclear about whether they’re agreeing or disagreeing with the point someone else has made! They seem very intent to avoid looking like they’re disagreeing with you, whereas to me as an Israeli, disagreeing with people is totally normal, and having a good debate can be really fun! It’s part of Jewish culture – as the old saying goes, take two Jews and you get three opinions. To us there’s nothing problematic about discussing our different opinions, expressing strong disagreements, and then sitting down to eat together. (I guess that’s why to me it seems perfectly natural to read someone’s post online and to say exactly what I think is wrong with it – my basic assumption is that people are interested in debate. Though with time I’ve learned that no, that’s not always what people are looking for.)

I talk to people a lot online – mainly on Google+, which is a great platform for getting into conversations with strangers, and building new friendships. Part of the beauty of it is that it’s a chance to get to know people from different cultures – but that also means that there’s more room for these misunderstandings. Online, we sometimes talk to people without even knowing what their cultural background is.

So if someone seems rude, it could be a good idea to ask yourself: is this something that might be normal in their culture? Am I offended because the way they’ve behaved is actually wrong, or just because, as that guy said to me, in my culture this isn’t normal?

end of rambling.


7 thoughts on “Rudeness is in the eye of the beholder

  1. I enjoy reading things like this! I checked a book out of the library once that was about social customs of many different countries. It was like a travel guide for business travelers and tourists.

    I hope you never go hungry in Israel. :>}


    • Oh yes, I also find cultural differences fascinating! There’s a fantastic book about the unwritten rules of English behaviour which I highly recommend – “Watching the English” by Kate Fox. Written in a very tongue-in-cheek style – a really fun read! and it’s all true :)


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