Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Don't Be A Clown

Everybody’s a comic. Or at least they think they are. That’s how I feel when I’m in a group setting with people I don’t know. One-liners, wisecracks and silly puns are often the means of communication at conferences, small dinner gatherings and, sadly, when talking to people of a different cultures.

It was a Fourth of July gathering several years ago in Kenya, hosted by the American Embassy, that I heard this remarkable exchange. Bob, whose ministry was among the Asian community in Nairobi, was talking to a young lady from Bombay.

“Have you had one of these hot dogs yet, Shilpa?”

“I’m sorry, no, I haven’t” she replied politely, “I’m vegetarian.”

“We’re going to have to get you saved,” Bob retorted, “so you can enjoy meat.”

My jaw dropped in horror! I can’t think of anything more insulting than Bob’s insensitive remark to his Hindu friend. But if you ask Bob about his comment, who should have known better, he no doubt would have dismissed his ignorance by saying, “Oh, lighten up. I was just a joke.”

Americans are generally friendly outgoing people. I think they sometimes compensate for not knowing how to interact with people of different cultures by trying to be humorous. The fact is, joking is as culturally driven as eating or the clothes people wear. Being an American from the southern part of the U.S., I sometimes cringe when I encounter my fellow southerners who visit overseas. With their bubbly, gregarious, slap-on-the-back personalities they have no clue that “friendly” can be interpreted as insulting and even sexually suggestive. Consider this story from George working as a teacher in Thailand.

“A student handed me a letter and bowed politely. The writing was in Thai, which I had not yet learned to read. I looked up and jokingly asked if it were a love letter? The young man's face blushed visibly. As the translation ricocheted around, the class began to laugh. The letter invited me to a reception the class had planned in my honor. The young man did not make eye contact with me for weeks. Joking in class is a risky business.”

My advice to people when they enter a new culture is they act with dignity and respect. Be friendly without being silly. You’re not there to entertain people, so leave your jokes at home and don’t try to be a comic.