We’ve all heard about how easy it is to send the wrong signals and even give offense when we’re visiting other cultures: everyone knows, for example, that the same hand gesture that means “peace” in America looks remarkably similar to the one that means “sod off!” (or words to that effect) in the U.K. And let’s not even get into all the ways you can offend someone with a simple handshake: too strong, too weak, wrong hand; in fact, given that handshakes evolved as a means of showing others our peaceful intentions it is somewhat ludicrous that there are so many different ways for them to do just the opposite.
And yet, even beyond handshakes there are so many different ways to offend others that a whole industry has arisen to teach us how not to. Worried about that upcoming trip to the Far East? No problem: simply pick up a handbook on Eastern etiquette and find out beforehand that it would be extremely offensive for you to touch a monk on the head with your foot while visiting Thailand. (Although, if you have to be told that’s it not ok to touch anyone–anywhere–on the head with your foot, then you probably shouldn’t be allowed to walk out your own front door on your own, let alone travel to foreign countries).
Still, even with the availability of all these books and instructional DVDs, when it comes to successfully interacting with “the other” we still manage to get it wrong. In fact, some of us are so inept that we contrive to offend the “other” on a daily basis–twice a day, sometimes, if we have to drop them off and pick them up from school. I am speaking, of course, of the most “other” other there is–our children–because, while it may be possible to learn enough hand signals and foot etiquette to get along when you visit Britain or Thailand, we have no hope of success when it comes to visiting the land of our offspring.
It took me a while to fully comprehend this: for a long time I believed that all our communication difficulties were simply a part of the generation gap. (After all, I thought, what point of reference is there between someone who thinks “soon” means “in the next two seconds” and someone who believes it means “within the next year–maybe”?)
After a while, though, I realized that our misunderstanding were too great to be explained by any mere age difference, and started to believe that they must, instead, be part of something much bigger–like a political problem. [It made sense: when the proletariat (that would be us–the people who are earning the money) and the aristocracy (that would be them–the people who spend the money) are all sleeping under the same roof it is somewhat inevitable that every morning will start out like a revolution.]
Finally, though, I came to my current position: that just as has been true of nearly every conflict that has rocked this planet since Captain Cook first got eaten for having the temerity to ask for his hammer back , this one, too, was a clash of cultures. At the time I came to this conclusion I believed that it was actually a good thing, because, as I mentioned before, the catalog of books written on understanding other cultures is practically endless. Surely, I thought, there must be an out-of-work cultural anthropologist out there somewhere who has written at least one book on understanding the strange culture that lives within our own homes?
Apparently, alas, the answer is : no.
I guess that it’s a lot easier creating a guide to England than one to Childland, which is unfortunate, because a lot less rides on our ability to understand the English–for one thing, they’re not the ones who get to decide which nursing home we go into.