Understanding a different “culture” is more than just knowing about traditions and foods of a place you are visiting. It’s understanding what different countries & people value, or find humorous or consider offensive. For example, this conversation that really happened to me:
“Jen, did you sit behind a computer the whole time you were in the states?”
“Because you look a little bit fat.”
Gasp! This is a real life conversation I had with one of my African friends upon returning to S. Africa after 2+ months of traveling around the U.S. and England. I mean, yes, there were a few more fat cells stuck to my thighs, midsection, and derrière (thank you Austin food trucks), but no one is supposed to actually point that out, right? Isn’t is supposed to be rude to say things like that?
Well, that’s what my American culture tells me. Fat equals a four letter word that should never be used to describe someone, and is definitely not a compliment to an American’s ears.
Did you know that calling someone fat in African culture is a compliment?
Take a moment to wrap your head around that one. I’ve lived in Africa on and off for seven years, and it still takes me off guard. Calling someone fat means you’re rich and healthy. The sick are skinny, and no one wants to be sick.
Still, the words that I can muster out of my American culture end with a question mark. “Thank you?” If I’d been offended by the compliment, I’d have offended the speaker.
How many times have you traveled to another place, whether from North to South in your own country or to another country entirely, and thought “How rude!” after someone told you something? Could it be that it was, in fact, a compliment?
Culture is an interesting thing. It dictates our actions. It drives our reactions. It even informs our cooking. It’s a very personal, deep rooted part of our lives which is the very reason that we can get so easily offended.
Here’s a little challenge for you. Next time your travels take you to another place and you hear something that sounds rude, think of it as a compliment instead. I swear, instead of ruining your day, it will have you laughing like a hyena. Leaving my fat conversation, I felt a little bit lighter (even though I obviously wasn’t with those extra pounds), because I laughed my head off that that conversation even existed.
Seriously, though, how can I expect someone to understand my deep rooted culture when I have a hard time understanding theirs? Culture…it’s mysterious, it’s complicated, it’s what makes us unique and for that, it’s beautiful.