Category Archives: Communications

Hugs and kisses (or handshakes)

Bear Hug

What are we supposed to do next? Shake paws?

Anyone who has lived in multiple countries or cultures will understand that moment of confusion when you meet a new person in a new place and… have no idea how to appropriately greet them. Do I shake their hand? Do I hug them? Do I kiss them on the cheek? Do I kiss them on both cheeks? Do I kiss them on the cheek three times?

Inevitably, there is a socially strained moment of awkward hovering when neither party is entirely sure what to do or where to go. Maybe a couple of clumsy air kisses are exchanged, hopefully with each party starting on the same side of the face to avoid any risk of accidental lip contact.

I’ve noticed that in AMERICA, the preferred form of greeting friends is hugging. The “hello hug” is not something I have observed much in other cultures – in France, it was faire la bise; in Holland, it was the three kisses; in Liberia, it was the finger snap handshake, and in England, it was simply avoidance of all physical contact with the other person (because that would be awkward, wouldn’t it?). But in the US, it’s all about hugging: hug hello, hug good-bye.

You can usually tell how close the people are by how close their hug is. Couples, of course, embrace. Close friends do a full body hug, going for the real thing. And acquaintances do the “ass out hug” – the hug that creates the least bodily contact between the two greeters (and makes them look as camp as possible).

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I need a new…

Who knows how to work it baby? The cobbler.

Who knows how to work it baby? The cobbler.

My roommate, who is German, came home from work one day and told me he had broken his shoe; the sole had fallen off while he was walking. They were the only nice pair of professional shoes he owned and he wore them to work every day. He went to a cobbler to try and get them repaired, but the cobbler had turned him away. So, he bought some glue and fixed them himself. Voila. He continues to wear those shoes at work every day.

It got me thinking about how many cobblers there were in London, which was something I noticed when I lived there. They were usually nestled in and around London Underground stations or squeezed into small shops in London City. And they always seemed to be doing a brisk business, including female customers getting heels re-affixed to pumps they pumped too hard.

I realized that in Europe, if your shoe breaks, you go to the cobbler to patch it up. The same is true in Africa, the only difference being the cobblers are often shop-less vendors sitting on the side of the road; that said, they are just as ready (indeed more so) to restore any shoe or flip-flop to wearable condition (and for small money).

This struck me, because as an American, my response to a shoe breaking was… go out and buy a new pair. Shoes and clothing are so cheap in the US (and have become cheaper over my lifetime), and there is such a mentality of consumption, that the “solution” to a broken shoe is replacement, not a repair. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” becomes “If it ain’t broke, don’t buy a new one.”

But even if an item isn’t broken, I feel it has become a habit in our culture to simply cycle through consumer goods – throwing away old items as soon as they show the slightest wear or obsolescence, and replacing them with newer, shinier versions. I realized I’ve become guilty of this myself. For example, before January, I had never even owned a smart phone; during all my years abroad, I got along just fine with my £5 Samsung phone. But when my brother gifted me an iPhone upon my arrival in the US (albeit one from 2010), it became my new standard.

But, I soon grew out of it. Using it on a daily basis, I began to get annoyed with its slow operating speed (surely due to the fact that it was 4 years old and several generations old). Sure, it worked. But it often froze up and I had to wait a long time for applications to load. So, I bought a new one. Well, by “new,” I mean a used Samsung Galaxy II that I bought on eBay for $114. But still, a new-er phone. I similarly upgraded my laptop, from the piece-of-shit $280 one I bought in January when I was unemployed, to a nicer one I’m using currently.

Next thing you know, I’ll want a new iPad, and a new Kindle, and by the time I’ve replaced all those things, it will be time for me to buy a newer phone and a newer computer again…

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Pet mania

Now THAT is a VERY good boy! Good boy! Good boy!

Now THAT is a VERY good boy! Good boy! Good boy!

I was walking down the street in my neighborhood the other day and I passed a woman walking her dog. As I slowly overtook her, I overheard her talking to her dog as it did a poo: “Good boy!” she exclaimed.

If it had stopped there, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought; it was cold out, and probably the woman was just displaying her pleasure at her hound having so expediently done its business.

But it didn’t stop there. Her exclamations continued: “Gooood boy! Goooooood boy! Oh yes aren’t you a very GOOD boy!” And so on. It must have lasted a good few minutes, because as I walked out of earshot I could still hear her cooing away.

I thought that was how parents talked to their babies when they potty train them, not how people talk to their dogs when they take an indiscriminate dump on the sidewalk. (And I thought to myself, even babies can’t begin to understand what is being said to them, so how does the dog have any chance of getting it?). I concluded the woman was just a crazy. Wrong. The following week, I witnessed the same scenario with another dog owner in my neighborhood. And I’ve seen the same pooch-poo-cheerleading again since then.

Apparently this is a thing among American dog owners: over-enthusiastic toilet anthropomorphism. Never having been a dog owner myself, maybe there is something here I am fundamentally missing. But I have come to the conclusion that American people take their pets very, very seriously. Especially so for dogs. A dog is elevated almost to the status of a child, with great attention given to its diet, no expense spared on its medical treatment, and custody battles fought over it in the event divorce or separation (yes, really). Cats may never reach quite this level of importance, but they get a lot of attention, too.

Clearly this is partially a function of the level of development in the US; people take such good care of their pets because they can afford to. In Somaliland, people regularly shot the stray dogs. In Liberia, the scrawny cats would eat people’s rice bits that fell onto the floor. (Yes, cats eat rice. Cats can actually eat virtually anything and survive just fine.) But even comparing the US to other developed countries, I feel Americans demonstrate a particular fervor toward their pets.

One story from my teenage years comes to mind which I will never forget. I used to babysit for my neighbors; they had two children: a toddler and an infant. I went over one morning and the father was giving me instructions for my day of babysitting while his wife was getting ready. He introduced me to the dog, a un-spayed purebred. He showed me where her food and water were kept in the kitchen and told me about her diet.

He then explained to me that it was “that time of the month.” Yes, that bitch had he period. So she needed to wear a menstrual pad (yes, really). He demonstrated to me how to affix the pad (it tied around the bitch’s behind like a string bikini) and how to change it. All I can say is, thank God she wasn’t using tampons.

After a ten minute explanation about the dog, his wife had finished getting ready and came downstairs. They then wished me a good day and headed out. I was so distracted by the canine maxi pad that it was only when they had left the house that I realized he had given me no instructions whatsoever about the feeding, bathing, clothing, or sleeping habits of his two children.

True story. I swear.

 

 

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Interrogation

InterrogationI recently blogged about the tendency of some Americans to monologue and subject those around them to a never-ending stream of information about themselves that the world never needed or wanted to know. Well, I realized the opposite can also be true. In addition to incessant talking, some Americans have the equally annoying habit of incessant questioning.

I went out for dinner with a female acquaintance the other week, looking for nothing more than to get to know each other better and enjoy a nice restaurant meal together. The meal ended up being delicious. And the woman was nice enough. But by the end of the meal I felt exhausted – because she had been asking me non-stop questions the entire time. I barely had a chance to chew my food, or ask her any questions in return, or maybe just enjoy a moment of quiet together over a glass of wine.

Now don’t get me wrong. Asking a person questions is something you do when you have a genuine interest in getting to know that person better, and on the other hand it’s off-putting when you meet self-involved people who never ask you any questions about yourself (I do always wonder how such people are so lacking in curiosity about others). But you don’t just get to know a person by asking them questions about their self, their past, and their preferences; you also get to know a person organically and naturally by spending time together and discussing topics of common interest.

I have noticed in the the US that people tend to ask a lot more personal questions, a lot more directly, and a lot more up front in the getting-to-know-you process. (American people also tend to volunteer a lot more personal information about themselves directly and up front.) I’m comparing this to British people, who tend to be much more private and reserved. The Brits avoid direct personal questions, which could be perceived as nosy or invasive; they tend to stick to “safe” common-territory conversation topics such as the weather, current events, sports, or something that both parties can moan (read: bitch) about together, like the London Underground.

These even plays itself out in the form of introductions. I remember in the UK, I would sometimes talk at length with someone – for example a random person I met at a house party, and spent most of the evening chatting with – without them ever asking my name (or me theirs). Then, at the very end of the night, when you part ways, one person might say, “Oh, by the way, what’s your name?” or even “Oh, by the name, my name is Ritch.” You introduce yourself as an afterthought, as though even asking someone’s name too soon in the conversation might be too pushy.

This is of course exactly the opposite of the American style, which is all about bulldozing right in there, proactively walking up to someone at the party with your hand extended, ready for handshake, and blasting “Hi, my name is Bob, what’s yours?” I appreciate that American forwardness and ease of talking to strangers. But I do wish sometimes that conversation could occur a bit more naturally – and part of that is sometimes silence occurring naturally.

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Monologues

Make. It. Stop.

Make. It. Stop.

On one of the many plane journeys I found myself on recently, I sat down next to a woman who could only be described as… audible. Actually, I wasn’t really next to her at all. She was sitting a row or two behind me, and another three seats to the right, with an aisle also between us.

But, judging by the volume of her voice, she might as well have been sitting right next to me. Because I could clearly hear everything she said. Everything. She. Said. Indeed, there was no way not to hear it.

It wasn’t even the volume of her voice that annoyed me. Or her nasal, heavy American accent. It was the fact that she was talking about herself, ad infinitum. I pitied the poor woman in the seat immediately next to her, who she had latched onto as her listener (err, victim). Every few sentences or so, the victim would politely nod or utter brief words of concurrence, and the woman would steam roll on with her monotonous monologue (or is it soliloquy, since she might as well have been talking to herself). Occasionally Ms. Motor Mouth would pause long enough for her victim to edge in a sentence of her own.

I repeatedly tried to block out the conversation (and by “conversation” I mean monologue) and refocus on the novel I was reading. But it was impossible. (They had not yet handed out the earphones, and sadly I had forgotten to pack the noise-cancelling headphones which I have now realized are indispensable for such journeys.)

No matter how hard I tried, my ears and my brain kept on getting drawn back to her riveting story about how she had driven all they way to the Washington airport from Florida so she could fly direct to Addis Ababa, and how she had only gotten permission from her manager to get one week off work, and how she had forgotten to pack her toothbrush, and other mundane minutiae of her life that could not possibly have been of interest to her victim or the dozens of other passengers within earshot of her on the plane.

I’ve encountered a lot of these people since returning to America. Sure, they also exist in Europe and Africa. But, they tend to be on crack or mentally unstable or homeless (or all of the above). In the US, on the other hand, “verbal diarrhea” appears to be an infection that plagues even functioning, drug-free members of society. It’s as though they just have no verbal filter, and narrate their entire stream of consciousness. Out loud. It’s like listening to the radio, but you can’t turn it off. I’ve noticed there are a lot of these “radio people” in America.

It’s especially noticeable when you hear a monologuer talking on the phone, because then you can’t even here the brief interrupting “Uh Huh” noise of the noble listener on the other end of the line; you perceive only the slight pause and inhalation of breath on the part of the speaker, before they barrel into the next repetitive detail of their day. And these monologuers always tend to repeat themselves (“And so yeah, I… [insert variation of point just stated]”). Perhaps because that’s the only way to come up with enough words to fill the air time.

God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.

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I’m back!

To my regular readers who have been wondering where I’ve been for the past two months (yes, two months), I apologize for being M.I.A.  Yes, I’m alive. I just haven’t been able to blog due to a number of factors, including major life events taking place that would have been enough to distract me on their own, but also happened to coincide with an intense schedule of business and personal travel which took me to South Sudan, Uganda, Boston, Bahamas, and Democratic Republic of Congo (yes, in that order, and yes, one of the more random collection of destinations I have visited in a span of seven weeks).

I’ve barely been in the US, less been able to blog about it. Well, I’m back home now, and I’m unpacked, and I’m not going anywhere again for one full month (which, right about now, seems like a long time to go without sitting on a plane). So, I’m back to blogging about weird and wonderful America! Expect more posts from me later in the week.

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Mystery month

Americans like to do things their own way. Forget the rest of the world. I blogged already about the American way of telling time. Well, Americans also like to do dates their own way. A fish doesn’t know the water, so yet again this is something I wasn’t even aware of until I moved abroad.

American children are taught to write dates in a month / day / year order. And generally children do what they’re told (and then they grow up into adults). Well, it turns out in classrooms in many other countries in the world (including the Canada and the UK), children are instead instructed to write dates in a day / month / year order. WHOA.

This leads to a lot of confusion. Think about it. What is 06/10/2013? Is that June 10, 2013? Or October 6, 2013? Well, the answer is, it depends – on where you are. This initially wreaked havoc on my personal filing system and records. Because, over time, I subconsciously migrated from writing dates in the US date format to writing dates in the British date format. So, when I saw a date written in my own hand, I wasn’t even sure which system I had used. D’oh.

Eventually I got into the habit of writing out the dates completely, as the French do, with the day and month clearly enumerated as such: 8 avril 2013 (or 8-April-13 or April 8, 2013). Yes, it’s longer to write out, but it saves you time down the road when you’re trying to figure out whether those accounting records you meticulously kept for yourself mean that you bought the stock on January 11, 2009 or November 1, 2009.

To confuse matters further, other countries follow  a year / month / day format (2009/11/1). If you think about it, the American system makes the least sense of all of them, because the units are neither in descending nor ascending order. But, I learned long ago to stop trying to apply logic to many things.

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