Saturday, January 28, 2012

I am unintentionally culturally insensitive*

As Americans, we use a lot of formerly powerful words in very meaningless ways. "Awesome" has less to do with a feeling of awe and more to do with how much you liked that new flavor of ice cream at Baskin Robbins. "Literally" gets thrown around so much now that most of the time, it's just assumed that you don't literally mean "literally." I once dated a guy in college that used "definitely" so liberally that I came to understand that when he said "definitely," he meant "probably not."

I confess, I am one of those ugly Americans. I am guilty of the meaningless "literally" or the overuse of "amazing." It's a personal habit that I've tried to work on, but it wasn't until today that I realized how much this Americanism had permeated my lifestyle.

The Mister and I have been on vacation in Jeddah, and we were on a tour of the Makkah region with a Saudi tour guide. Our guide was wonderful, very friendly, and knew all the back roads to take us to places we would never be able to find on our own. I riddled him with any number of silly questions, and he always gracefully answered them. However, throughout our trip, I'd felt like I had offended him in some way, but I wasn't sure how. Until today, when I asked a question about camels.

He was explaining about camel beauty contests, a concept I was familiar with, but I didn't know all the details he was sharing with me. He was explaining about the millions of dollars people will spend on a camel from a good bloodline and other customs. I kind of chuckled, shook my head and said, "That's so funny."

"That's so funny" is a phrase I say all the time. For me, it's more of a vocal pause, or a replacement for the courtesy laugh. I usually use it without thinking, it's sort of an automatic ender to a side conversation or a response to a fast fact that is interesting, but isn't a segue into anything else.

"I just found out my best friend has a huge Madame Alexander doll collection."
"That's so funny!"

"...and then she walked right into the lamp post!"
"That's so funny!"

"I just found $20 in my coat pocket!"
"That's so funny!"

I didn't think anything of it when I responded to my tour guide's story of the huge prizes to be won at camel beauty contests with my typical, "That's so funny." I'd probably used that phrase several times throughout our 2 day trip to Taif and back and didn't even realize it. But his response got my attention.

"It's not something that is funny. People spend a lot of money. Just like people in your country have dog beauty and cat beauty contests. In Syria they have goat beauty contests." His voice had a tinge of defensiveness. I had touched a nerve with my nonchalant "That's so funny," and I certainly hadn't meant to. He had interpreted my "That's so funny" as me saying that this part of his country's culture was laughable, nonsensical.

We were on a very long road trip back to Jeddah, so I got a lot of time for introspection. I'm afraid that over the course of my almost two years in Saudi Arabia that I've been leaving a trail of offended locals in my wake. I reflected on days at work that were particularly marked by cold shoulders from my colleagues, or parent conferences that didn't exactly go so well, despite me using my typical teacher charm. I realized that I have probably been inadvertently exercising this ugly American habit, and those around me have taken my words seriously when I was just using a prolonged vocal pause.

Now I'll probably be that paranoid, overly-cautious-with-her-words, awkwardly sensitive American. I'm not sure which is the lesser of the two evils, but I'm grateful to have gotten this chance to realize this giant flaw. Now I can start working on it.

Vicariously yours,

*I wrote this post a few days ago, but scheduled it to be published at a later date. I'm not in Jeddah anymore, but I was when I wrote this post.

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