When I was a Maryknoll nun and also when I was a graduate student at university, I took many courses learning about other cultures. I read the work of many anthropologists who had spent years studying and writing about them. Understanding another culture is not so easy as those demanding “political correctness” sometimes seem to suggest. It is not simply a matter of observing the protocols of mere politeness we may have been taught as children. Nor is it a matter of merely learning the languge.
I received a substantial number of private emails after my last post asking for reactions to the letter to British imams from the community secretary after the Charlie Hebdo massacres. Most felt that it was not an inappropriate letter, but there was some concern that the assurance that Muslims shared British values might have sounded pretentious. It’s probably not possible to get it right all the time for everybody.
It may be an increased awareness of the challenge, or only a coincidence, but the media seems to reporting an unusual number of these apparent cultural “misunderstandings.”
After an interview with President Obama by an Asian journalist recently, she gave him a gift “for your first wife.” Obama rolled his eyes and said to her “Do you know something I don’t?” Obviously, the term the journalist meant to use was “first lady.”
Then a member of the British foreign office visiting Taiwan brought a gift for the prime minister – a very very expensive watch. But when the prime minister opened it, he was dumbfounded. In the Chinese culture, giving someone a watch is a suggestion that their “time is up.” The prime minister’s office later said the watch had been “disposed of.”
And I wonder whether Pope Francis really meant to convey the insult suggested to some large families that earth does not need Catholics “to breed like rabbits.”
Benedict Cumberbatch has expressed acute embarrassment for his reference to “coloured people.” He says he was devastated to have caused offense, and is an idiot.
Sometime ago we ran into a friend in our local supermarket who was excruciatingly embarrassed because he had just asked a Black supermarket worker where the “black treacle” was. (For Americans not familiar with the word, we call it blackstrap molasses.) We assured him that we doubted it was considered a racial slur. But he was really worried.
Just yesterday when I was waiting at the supermarket checkout, the woman before me made a derogatory remark to the checkout clerk about America. The clerk knows I’m American, and he was greatly concerned that I might be insulted. I told him I had enough criticisms of my own of America not to take personally everything that is said about the U.S.
But I will admit that I have often both misunderstood and been misunderstood. It’s sometimes embarrassing, sometimes irritating, inevitably fascinating. Sometimes we just get it wrong out of ignorance. I think in our increasingly globalized world, we need to be very very careful about being insulted.
Though I will confess that I do wish Charlie Hebdo was a little more restrained. Just because one can legally lob insults doesn’t mean one should.