I was brought up in a household where honesty was a demanding and broad way of life. Tact, polite manners, discretion and political spin were all considered to be pretty sinful, and a person who claimed (s)he forgot something more than one time “did not care enough to remember” and needed to admit it. This is a bittersweet way to live. Surprises are virtually impossible, and secrets are a dangerous minefield to be negotiated as little as possible. Privacy is permitted, but viewed with a slight hint of suspicion. In fact, honesty means more than truth telling. It means low context communication, direct confrontation (gentle and kind is preferable but less important than direct), and self-awareness.
Whew. That is great right? I mean, rigorous honesty is a value espoused by 12 steps and other recovery programs. “Bearing false witness” is forbidden by the ten commandments. Everyone knows lying is bad. If I’m honest, I get along great with my parents, and probably because of this value – which respects boundaries as a natural complement to giving a child permission to say “I hate asparagus” and reply not, “hey that’s rude” but “You do not have to eat it, and it’s ok if you don’t announce it, just say no, thank you I don’t want any.” I appreciate that as an adult I don’t have to worry about guilt-trip messages, passive aggressive pressure, or even unspoken expectations. It makes mutual respect POSSIBLE.
The downside to that, is all this conflation of directness and honesty creates some unreasonable expectations. I expect dates to tell me they are not interested, rather than just fade away. I feel betrayed when a friend tries to let me down easy because he is busy when I wanted to hang out. I get nervous around subliminal messages and nonverbal cues and have created drastically awkward situations by naming what I perfectly understood but did not trust because it was not explicit. I find high context / less direct cultures to be both fascinating and terrifying. When the rules are learn-able, it’s no different than translating from one language to another. (Now, I’ve never learned to think in high context speak, but LOVE the options of “mirroring” language to figure out how to say what I mean).
Why does this matter? Because when meeting new people, new groups, new organizations, I must consciously and intentionally interpret the requirements for directness, tact, context, and deference are due to which people in any given situation. And the worst struggle I’ve ever had was overcoming my WASPy upbringing thereby claiming that that manners are not supposed to be effortless or innate. They are learned, taught skills which I can aquire, adapt and apply as I see fit.
This works great until I find a group whose cultural definitions of honesty and deference seem to clash into what I perceive as unjust, abusive or otherwise intolerable systems. More on specifics another day.
What cultural norms do you struggle with? How have you adapted to survive?