Tell it like it is

12
Nov
2008

With all the places I have been in the past two years, I can’t help but compare and contrast things about the cultures in which I find myself. Each has their own pluses and minuses, and each has an amazing way of revealing something about the human condition and its many adaptations. And I often find a small mystery in one culture that can only be answered by beginning to understand another. Case in point: Mexicans vs. Argentines.

I noted with some frequency when I was living in Mexico the distaste Mexicans have for the Argentines. They would use many words to describe them, but it boiled down to the fact that in Mexico, Argentines are seen to be rather snobbish and arrogant, and it was quite often I would hear Mexicans complaining about how demanding and rude the Argentines were in their eyes. I never really knew exactly what they were going on about, but my Argentine friends in Mexico seemed every bit as down on Mexicans as Mexicans were on them. There was clearly a clash of cultures going on here, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Now that I have been in Buenos Aires for a month, I think I am beginning to see where the clash is. And it is interesting to note that here in Buenos Aires, I have yet to hear a single negative word spoken about Mexicans or Mexican culture for that matter. In fact, the few Argentines who have spoken of Mexico speak in often glowing terms. This is most likely due to the very small (non-existant?) number of Mexicans that are living here compared with the much larger number of Argentines living in Mexico. (Then again, there does seem to be some real cultural animus towards Peruvians and Bolivians here, but that is a separate matter. Every culture has their own xenophobia.)

One of the things that I have noticed here without a doubt is how direct the people are when speaking. It is not uncommon to hear a grandmother swear like a drunken sailor, have people tell you directly that they are or are not interested in seeing you today, hear strong opinions of all types on delicate matters, etc. In short and in general, they don’t pussyfoot around. Your feelings might be hurt, but you know where you stand with the Argentines.

Things could not be more different in Mexican culture. In Mexico, one almost never says directly what one thinks, it is considered to be rude. I remember many times pulling my hair out trying to understand what Mexicans were really thinking. I actually moved out of my first apartment there because my roommate was so non communicative and afraid of conflict. My friend George, who lived several years in Mexico gave me the following advice that sort of sums it up. He told me that when leaving a party early, for whatever reason, you just have to lie and say “I’ll be right back”, even if you have no intention of coming back. It would be rude to just say “goodbye” or “I have another party to get to” or “I am tired”. George told me that Mexicans much prefer a nice lie to the harsh truth. And I have to admit to experiencing many frustrating planning misadventures just because people thought it rude to say “I can’t make it next Wednesday”. They would much rather agree to something and then just let it drop. Argentines, on the other hand are precisely the opposite. And I have to admit to preferring it that way. My feelings don’t get hurt very easily, and I like to know where I stand with people.

They really remind me a lot of my own family. Maybe because there are so many Germans and East European Jews here, and they have had a rather large impact on the culture, or maybe it is because of something else. In my family, we just say what we are thinking to each other, and nothing is very hidden. I like the fact that we can say what is on our minds and at the end of the day still know that we love each other. This isn’t the same thing as being rude. It is obviously important to take care with people’s feelings. But I can totally see now why there is such friction in Mexico between these two cultures. At the heart of it is a very different sense of propriety and expression.

In sum, and to put it in a kind way for each, one culture places a much higher value on directness, the other a much higher value on politeness.

The (accidental) Man

31
Jul
2008

My mother is a very strong woman, and very accomplished. She raised me and my brothers to believe that we could be anything we wanted to be. And she raised us to believe in the human potential of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, background or gender. She encouraged us to look at each person as an individual, not as a member of some group, and she strongly discouraged us from stereotyping people based on their membership in any one of these categories. She didn’t want us to make limiting assumptions about people especially because such limiting assumptions had been made about her at earlier times in her life. As a Jewish woman raised in the 50s in central Indiana, she had all too often been the target of stereotypes or lowered expectations based on what was expected of women in that time and place. She realized that she had internalized a lot of these prejudices and had to work many years to finally get to the place where she could rely on her own strength and judgment to determine what her capacities were. Such has been the case with many successful women in our society. And the men have also been bound in their way to the expectations placed on their potential and ability. So we were raised with an understanding that women and men could perform any kind of task they wished in any kind of setting, and that the world should not dictate a different set of possibilities based simply on gender. In short, we were raised to treat all people equally.

So it has been with some mirth that these many years later I look on the next generation of child rearing (especially in my brother’s case) and notice a few things. On the one hand, my brother is much more present in parenting than our own father was when we were at such a young age. Our parents got divorced when I was about 8 (and my brother 6) and our biological father never really played a part in our early childhood. It was only after my mother remarried about a year and a half later that we really got a father figure, and we could not have asked for a better one. My stepfather is in all ways the father we never had as very young children, and he (along with my mother) was always there for us, guiding us, teaching us, fathering us until we were adults. He and my mother are to this day one of those ideal couples I look at to demonstrate that long term love is possible and can be wonderful. They are the rock of our extended family, and spending time with them is always a treat.

My brother has been such a doting father during these early years and it is wonderful to see how much pride he takes in his family. One also gets the sense that he takes great satisfaction in being able to provide materially for them. My brother is clearly the best in the family with financial management. My parents were never great with money and the rest of us inherited their lack of financial acuity. Not so my brother, who has the right salary, investments and accounts. As a lawyer who deeply understands tax law and its implications, my brother has a clear eye on on the future with regard to retirement, health care and education for his children, each account carefully chosen and managed with some relish. Outside of the material well being of his family, my brother is constantly spending time with his kids, teaching them things, telling them how much he loves them at every turn. He punishes them when necessary, but always with a gentle hand and an eye towards making them more caring, responsible, and sharing individuals.

Yet there has been one area of his fathering that I have watched with a touch of dismay. Despite the ways in which we were raised, despite all the evidence around him, my brother is still choosing (perhaps semi-unconsciously) to reinforce gender stereotypes with his children. The evidence is everywhere, from the ways in which he describes them to others, to the names he calls them, to the way he treats them, to the different discipline paths he expects them to follow when they enter their teen years. He will describe his son repeatedly as being “all-boy” and “fearless”, and will go out of his way to reinforce these traits with rough housing and sporty activities of all sorts. He seems to find it important to talk about all the “girlfriends” he has (he is six years old) at school, and what a ladies man he will surely be when he grows up. Although I don’t think my brother would get angry if his son decided to play with Barbie dolls, he clearly has an image of how his son should be and reinforces it with his language, attitude and body language at every turn. Likewise with his daughter who is 4 1/2. She is his “princess” and he encourages her to think of herself that way. He will often talk about how she has “daddy wrapped around her little finger” and (half) jokingly talk about killing any young man that may want to date her when she is older. He routinely talks about how he will need to “protect” her in ways his boy will not need protecting, because she is a girl and therefore more vulnerable to attack. (My sister-in-law appears to be somewhat more even handed on this subject and routinely ridicules the idea that the kids should be treated differently.)

Of course there are some biological differences between boys and girls. But biology is not destiny, and certainly reinforcing the tired stereotypes of the past will not aid children in overcoming them. My mother tells a story about her not taking an economics course until college because that was something men were good at, but not women. She became the highest scoring student in the class. Society at large and parents in particular can’t always stop themselves from seeing their children in certain ways that make them comfortable, but shoehorning them into these roles is limiting. On a public policy level, my brother is completely egalitarian. He would never accept the idea that his son or daughter (or anyone else’s for that matter) would be limited by law or custom from achieving their potential. And yet it seems very important for him in his own family to see the boy as capital “b” Boy, and the girl as capital “g” Girl. When I point out to him some of these things, he dismisses it as the observation of someone who “doesn’t have children” and thus could know nothing about it. I beg to differ. Certainly there are things about the parenting role that I do not know having not experienced it myself. But on the question of gender roles in society, I am fairly expert, having experienced these things first hand. I know how difficult society’s obsession with gender conformity has made being gay for example, and I work every day to make it easier for those who come after me. Girls and boys deserve a world that doesn’t guide them along different paths for no other reason than biology. For them to become fully realized women and men, we need to encourage them to become fully realized human beings and to understand, reinforce, and create equal opportunity for all of us.

Blindfolded

4
May
2008

Many years ago in college, my friends and I would discuss an idea for a party that we never executed. The idea was that at the door to the party, everyone would be required to put on a blindfold, and spend the next couple of hours at the party meeting and talking to people without the aid of sight. Then at one point in the party, everyone would take off their blindfold and see the people that they had been talking to. The idea of course was that we all make a significant number of judgements about people based on nothing other than their appearance, and it would be a refreshing exercise to interact without this particular filter. Would we have picked the same people to talk to had the blindfold not been present? Or would we have retreated to our tried and true visual shorthand?

In a similar way, I have noticed that here in Mexico I have on a kind of blindfold, albeit linguistic. Since I am still in the fairly early stages of learning the language, a lot of subtlety related to slang, nuance, class, gesture and the like is lost on me. Because of this, the friends I have made here are a pretty divergent bunch. I am not at all certain that they would like or even get along with each other. I was aware of this phenomenon in France many years ago when I was in a homologous situation learning the ins and outs of the language. It takes a number of years in a culture before we make shorthand judgements of people. I am probably applying some of my American ones to people in a possibly inappropriate way here (although less inappropriate than applying these same filters in India for example, as Mexicans and Americans firmly share Western culture).

There is no doubt that we develop this shorthand over many years and for many good reasons as a kind of social self-protection mechanism. But it is just as true that we develop many of these traits for less than savory reasons, to bring us closer to the people that match our backgrounds, race, ethnicity, political world view, gender, religion or other.  Human beings have a tendency to want to have their identities reinforced, strengthened, justified and validated. But look how much we are missing in the process. Although the effort is larger, sometimes the greatest rewards come from reaching out to the other, the unfamiliar, or even the frightening or hated. Being here in the preliminary phase of cultural imprint and understanding, I am lucky indeed to be wearing the blindfold.