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Cultural translation, part 375 - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Cultural translation, part 375 [Mar. 12th, 2015|12:26 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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This is in response to a locked post a friend made about how hard it can be to talk about things when you’re doing badly, without minimizing or feeling like you’re whining. I wrote most of the post and then realized that people might think I was being subtle about myself instead of reacting to a friend. But: locked post, cannot link. Sorry.

Some years ago, a friend of mine lost her partner (also a friend of mine). In addition to his death–as if that wouldn’t have been enough–my friend also lost her voice for quite some time, and there was an incident with a falling piano, and…yeah. It was not a good scene for my friend. Everyone who knew her knew of the string of bad things, but those of us in town had more opportunity to actually spend time with her.

Then I went to World Fantasy, and I ran into some people I know by name but do not know well. They were friends with my friend. And when I mentioned her name, they immediately said, “Oh yes, how is [friend]?” And I said, very firmly, “She’s doing just great.” They reared back and stared at me as though I had grown a second head. Doing great?, they asked incredulously. I, in turn, stared at them as though they had grown additional heads and said, “I don’t know how much better anyone could expect her to do under the circumstances!” Well, no, they agreed. Under the circumstances. Really one could not. But we sort of looked at each other funny for the rest of the conversation.

And it is hard to find the balance between informing people of bad stuff that’s going on and feeling like you’re whining. It really is. But this is also complicated by the fact that friends and other people of goodwill can’t rely on coming from the same cultural perspective on this. Even when one is speaking on behalf of someone else and not worrying about whining–and Lord knows if anyone had earned a whine that fall it would have been my friend–what message is conveyed by what level of response is highly, highly culturally determined. I would have felt disloyal if I’d said something that, in retrospect, was more like they seemed to expect, more along the lines of, “Poor dear, with all she’s been through it’s a wonder she can put one foot in front of the other to get from bed to bathroom.” It was a wonder. But she was doing it, and I didn’t want to give the impression that she was not. They already knew the practical details–I knew this was not a situation where I was going to be called upon to say, “Oh, had you not heard the terrible news?”

And I think one of the major cultural obstacles to overcome in achieving actual communication is how much people are expected to state the emotionally obvious. Sometimes it’s a relief to turn to someone and say, “I’m really sad right now,” or, “This has been very stressful for me.” But sometimes it’s also a great relief not to have to. Sometimes it’s a very great relief for the person or people you’re with to think, “Hmm, gee, Friend’s partner died, maybe Friend is REALLY SAD, I’ll do something nice,” without having to spell out every moment: “Still sad. Yep, still devastated. Life still in chaos due to very sad thing, yep yep.”

Sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes that’s just how it works out. But wow, is it another layer of difficult just when people don’t need more difficult. And it’s a thing to keep an eye out for a) when writing people from different cultures and b) in trying to be compassionate in, y’know, real life.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: hobbitbabe
2015-03-12 07:33 pm (UTC)
I sort of think of this situation as figuring out what kind of time-averaging to use. Like, if the person already knows the context of the bad month, it is nice to just be able to talk about the good day without needing to average it out and talk about the month. Or my friend who just had an unhelpful conversation with the outpatient psych intake because my friend was not having a bad day today and was uninclined to relive the bad days. Also, I value friends to whom I can say that I feel awful right now, without having them either freak out with long-term worry for me or else make me feel as if I am ungrateful for having all the big good things that I have in my life.

I used to always be taking the time average or the integral or whatever and smoothing out the bumps before I talked to other people, and in fact before I paid attention to my feelings, but nowadays I value the peaks and valleys - but I still find it a little exhausting to follow the emotions of some volatile actor friends who have never had those averaging habits.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-12 09:31 pm (UTC)
This is an interesting thought. I think most people do at least some averaging, or you'd get, "Horrible! I just banged my funnybone!" more often in response to, "How are you?" But it does seem that some people are reporting the half-hour average, some people are reporting the life average, and most people are somewhere between.
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2015-03-13 12:32 am (UTC)
I was going to say something similar: the question "how is she?" can mean either (or both) of "how is she feeling/coping/reacting to what I already know about?" and "is there any recent news?" Sometimes you don't know what the scale for "recent" is, and that can affect the answer to either meaning of that question.

A while ago, I asked one of my local friends "how is so-and-so?" and got an answer along the lines of "still depressed." Which is different from passing along news about events or accomplishments, and also different from saying "So-and-so has been depressed lately" or "her depression has gotten worse."

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From: vcmw
2015-03-12 08:16 pm (UTC)
This is very helpful to think about.

I am actually planning to order a whole book on various ways to give comfort, because I kinda think I need to study it. The script in my family mostly involves gruff sideways non-verbal acknowledgements and a lot of food. Casseroles. Hot beverages. Like that. Which can be handy, but doesn't translate super well to the internet.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-12 09:29 pm (UTC)
A lot of that is our default here too. Happily storytelling also is.
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[User Picture]From: wild_irises
2015-03-12 10:43 pm (UTC)
So what I think you are saying is that "Great!" is a variable state. I can be doing great with horrible things raining onto my head, but it's a different kind of great than I would be doing if I just won the Pulitzer Prize (or something else that I'm completely unqualified for).

And the other side of that, I think, is that "small" things hit some people harder than others, and someone can genuinely be doing horribly when faced with something that I would be very likely to shrug off.

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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-13 12:56 am (UTC)
Debbie, given your history of minimizing the experiences of others to the point of misrepresentation, I'm really uncomfortable with this comment. I'd prefer it if you looked elsewhere for this type of conversation. Thanks.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2015-03-12 11:28 pm (UTC)
Seems like a verb thing, at least partly. I mean, ambiguous use of modal (is that the word?) verbs. We say "she's doing great!" and often mean "she *is* great!', but in your example you really did mean "doing", as "she's doing a great job dealing with very difficult and sad circumstances!" Actually, on second thought, I think you meant exactly what you said and it was the other people expecting imprecision and being confused thereby.
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[User Picture]From: genarti
2015-03-13 04:34 pm (UTC)
There's also the matter of ingrained social scripts. Especially because I work a job that involves a certain amount of cheerful customer service mode, there've been times (especially at work) where I might genuinely be fine with a little more emotional openness of the "Well, it's been a hard week, but I'm generally doing okay" sort... but a cheery "Just fine, thanks, how about you?" with a bright smile has slipped its way out on autopilot before other answers have a chance to put their boots on. More for oneself than for discussing other people, I think.

But yes, absolutely, about cultural context. For me in the situation you mention I think my answer would be something like "She's doing all right," with a little grimace of poor thing, she's coping fantastically but it sucks so much that she's had to, but it'd depend a lot on my perception of the other person's pride and/or privacy vs desire to have other people spread updates so they didn't have to, etc. Which is often a certain amount of guesswork, both for personality and for cultural assumptions, unless the person has done the up-front work of thinking through and spelling out exactly how they would prefer friends to handle inquiries. (Which is absolutely work, and often at a time when someone doesn't have the spare emotional energy for it.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-13 11:27 pm (UTC)
I totally agree about the ingrained social scripts. Sometimes my mouth treats "finehowareyou" as all one word while my brain is still processing, no, wait, this was not the social noise, this was the actual question.
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2015-03-14 07:48 am (UTC)
I've seen some scholarship on implicit compared to explicit cultures, which I think this goes back to.

I have... mixed emotions on this. I moved from a fairly implicit culture (the Midwest) to a very explicit culture (Boston geeks). On the one hand, I really appreciate in my interactions with others here being able to state openly and honestly how things are going and being able to accept them giving me the same consideration.

On the other hand, some days I'm having a bad day in a way I don't know how to verbalize, and I feel like I'm screaming through nonverbal channels but all that comes out of my mouth is this gruff, affectless monotone, and it helps to have somebody come say, "hey you look like you're having a bad day" in order to deal with it.

Grr, argh.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-14 11:28 am (UTC)
I appreciate how you see ups and downs for both. I get very frustrated when people I know have used that research to point to more implicit cultures as wrong.
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2015-03-15 04:46 am (UTC)
That is frustrating. To be sure, I know I'm happier in an explicit culture than an implicit one. I grew up primarily in other people's implicit cultures but never belonged to them, and in explicit culture I feel... least like an outsider.

Getting off the plane my first morning in Iceland, I don't know what it was about it -- my first time out of mainland North America, jetlag and lack of sleep, the black shadows of the rocks in the low gold light -- but I understood then maybe a little of what it might feel like to belong to an implicit culture, and if you belonged to a place like that, why you might never leave.

Some of my love of fantasy literature is nostalgia for an implicit culture in which I imagine I might belong (the Shire, for example), although as I've gotten older my enjoyment of that has gotten more complicated.
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[User Picture]From: thanate
2015-03-17 01:28 am (UTC)
Yeah, that.

There was a while after my father died where people would occasionally ask me how my mother was doing. And the answer really was "fine" (or, "grieving but fine") and then there were the moments where it was also that she was doing better than I was (for a completely different set of reasons than the askers were looking for.) Plus a little bit of "How would I know?" because I was neck-deep in baby and living an hour's drive away.

Which made fielding the question a little odd.
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