Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sometimes you can't do nothing

Lately I've been impressed by a few experiences about injustices and oppression based on cultural differences. I think I'll share them in a series of posts. Long posts tend to get passed by.

In France our American team of Christians (16 of us including a 3 yr. old) traveled from our initial stop in Paris to Grenoble via train. The trains are super fast and a comfortable means of transportation. And they are public transportation.

We were briefed by our host before the trip across the pond that among other things, the French consider Americans to be loud and boisterous. It's a perception based on cultural differences. We are loud. We like to laugh out loud and have fun.

So here we are on this coach with maybe twenty other passengers on an afternoon train ride that took something like 3 hours. Our team is just that, a team that enjoys being together. We were reminded (by yours truly) that we should be respective of a different culture. And for most of the trip we did our best to gag our Americanisms.

But you can't expect 16 friends to spend 3 hours on a train and act like strangers, not engaging in talk and fun. So we talked and laughed. A very non-French thing to do.

Most of the others on the train were keeping to themselves. My guess was they were either napping or reading or just looking out the window at the beautiful villages and countryside that zipped by.

Then the cultures clashed. A passenger in the rear of the coach stood up and in English said (so that we all could hear) something like, "Less noise, please!". Oops!

A hush came over our group. Busted! We did our best to keep it down. Not because we understood or even agreed, but because we didn't want to offend. Yet we felt like fish out of water.

I thought some of these thoughts...
It is public transportation. Who made him the decibel meter maid? Get your sleep somewhere else, Francois. Last I heard France was still a free country. Get a life!

In the US, on a bus or train I might have even expressed those thoughts. But this was a different culture and we were guests. So when in France, do as the French do. At least try. And we did.

I need to also say that by far our experiences in France were positive ones and the French we worked with and met on our trip were the greatest hosts and hostesses. Never did they make us feel unwanted or uncomfortable at all. So this isn't a criticism of the French or their culture.

But what I learned from that experience is that if we don't understand or adapt to another culture when we are within it we'll either create or be the recipients of criticism. And if we as citizens of the "host" country don't recognize that guests might bring their own nuances with them and give them some slack we can quickly allow prejudices to determine our ability to treat them with respect.

The minor incident on the train ride helped me mentally prepare for a couple of incidents here at home that I would engage soon.

1 comment:

Barb said...

That "get a life" mindset is exactly why Americans have become known as "ugly Americans" abroad. I'm glad you seemed to change your tune at the end of the post, Rick. If travelers have no intention of acting like polite guests while in other countries, embracing their culture and traditions, perhaps they should stay home.