Sep. 13th, 2012

apple_pathways: Whatever floats your boat! (Default)
I got into British television and other media as a teenager. I love the period dramas, the panel shows, the documentaries, and the radio! Ah, the radio: good music, and actual talk you'd want to listen to. (I love NPR, but it's only a supplement to my BBC iPlayer radio fix.)

Naturally, spending as much time as I do listening to foreign media, I'm presented with a lot of unfamiliar terms, culture, and points of view. At first, the struggle was just learning basic vocabulary; I've pretty much got that down now. (When [ profile] planejane was moving back to the UK and giving away the things she couldn't take with her, she was surprised that I was able to translate the term 'strimmer' into American for her: we call it a 'weed whacker'. :P Yeah, so occasionally I tune in to Gardener's Question Time...)

As far as cultural ideals and interactions, I'm sure I'll spend the rest of my life learning.

Years ago, I found the blog of an American-born Linguistics professor who lives in England: Separated by a Common Language. For Americans interested in British culture, Brits interested in American culture, Americans and Brits interested in their own culture, or just anyone with a casual interest in linguistics and/or culture: it's a great read. :)

Recently, she gave a TED talk about American and British politeness. She's speaking to a British audience, and therefore focuses more on explaining American politeness ideals and how they contrast to British ideals, but it's really just an interesting introduction to how hidden cultural assumptions can impact on interactions. Particularly useful are her explanations of positive vs. negative face and solidarity vs. deference politeness systems.

I have a point of reference for how someone from the UK might feel interacting with an American, because of course: American politeness ideals vary across regions. (I imagine this might be true of the UK, as well.)

I live in Michigan, considered to be part of "The North" by many Southern Americans. Recently, I went down to visit my brother in North Carolina (part of "The South") and had very many interactions with strangers that just would not occur at home.

For example: my sister-in-law and I went out to buy some wine, and ended up at a small specialty shop near her house. It consisted of a small back room comprising the retail shop, and a front room set up as a small wine bar. At the bar were seated several people, one of whom worked at the shop. (But was not working at the time, I assume.)

I selected my wine rather quickly, and went up to the front to pay for it while Erin shopped. Southerners being known for their "friendliness", the woman at the bar who worked in the shop quickly struck up a conversation with me. Part of it could be paraphrased thusly: she told me a story about taking a trip to Pennsylvania Amish country. She and her boyfriend went out to breakfast, and she tried to order grits, and he laughed at her because grits are pretty much unheard-of outside of the South*. Her breakfast came with potatoes (probably home fries, from her description of them) and they were some of the best potatoes she had ever eaten.

Most Northern Americans and (I imagine) most Brits are probably wondering: why the hell did she tell you all this?! In Michigan, it's not unheard-of to have a conversation with a stranger in a service environment, but it's unlikely that it would be this personal and the conversation definitely would have started with 5 minutes discussion about the weather.

In light of the discussion of solidarity politeness systems from the video, however, it makes more sense: She likely noticed from my accent that I'm an outsider to the area, so she offered up a story in which she herself had been an outsider, to establish common ground. In the story, she came off as a bit foolish, lowering herself down a bit on her pedestal and trying to put us on even footing. Finally, she complimented (at great lengths) the potatoes she received with her meal (a "food from the North"), complimenting me (and my homeland?) by extension. (Would have made more sense if I felt any connection whatsoever with Pennsylvania, but then, this just illustrates Americans and their tendency to lump together "North" and "South" as homogenous regions without variation.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I still remember this anecdote from Russell Howard's old radio show: he had made a visit over the holidays to New York City, and was discussing his trip and his impressions of Americans. He remarked to his co-host, "They talk to you in lifts (elevators), you know!" He said this with the same note of horror I might use to describe a stranger who tries to strike up a conversation with me from the next bathroom stall. (Which, OK, yeah: sometimes we (Americans) do that!)

I was a bit surprised by this observation because, quite frankly, New Yorkers are not generally accused of being overly friendly. But then he gave an example of the sorts of things said to him: basically asking what floor he was getting off on (so the person could press the appropriate button for him), and general greetings like "Good Morning" or "Merry Christmas". I couldn't help but giggle because, to an American, that hardly constitues talking!

What I'm trying to get at, and the point most will probably miss because I droned on too long at the start: is that I find Lynn Truss's discussion of different politeness systems and hidden social values to be eminently applicable to discussions on the internet. (And talking about solidarity systems, whoa: LJ is most definitely a solidarity system, no?)

Very often I'll be responding back and forth with someone on Twitter, LJ, or wherever, and just get this feeling that there is something going awry; that our responses aren't quite matching up the way they should. Sometimes there's a tone shift in the other person's response that seems to indicate I might be offending them, other times I find myself wondering if the other person is being rude.

Of course, in a text-based discussion, there aren't the usual visual and verbal clues that tell you more about what your conversation partner is feeling, but it goes beyond that: it's a tricky business, navigating conversations across cultures essentially blind.

It's something I'll have to keep in mind, the next time I start suspecting that there is more going on in a conversation than I'm aware of.

* - grits are not entirely unheard-of outside of the South, but they're still not a breakfast menu staple like they are down there. They are very much an iconic Southern American food.

...which is why I'm always confused by the Doctor Who episode (I think it's "The Sound of Drums"?) where the Master offers (to the President of the US) to make tea and then adds, "unless that's not American enough. I could make grits." I had no idea Brits associate grits with America, because Americans associate grits pretty much exclusively with the South!
Moonlines and apple-pathways

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