My friend Rich wrote on his Facebook Wall that he had gained the first 5 pounds of autumn. Pretty innocuous news that you would think would go unnoticed. What ensued, however, was an unprecedented, lively conversation, involving people from across the country who didn’t even know each other, basically coming together to make fun of Rich for his weight gain. People pondered what he ate and made suggestions from getting elastic waistbands to directing him to the maternity department when he goes shopping.
The exchange was very funny, all at Rich’s expense, of course. I thought “I’m enjoying this because it’s not me,” which made me look at who was involved in the sparring: It was all women…all women operating possibly under the cultural assumption that in our society, men are not sensitive about their weight. Had this been a woman complaining she had gained 5 pounds, the only acceptable response from another American woman (or I can at least vouch for a Jewish-American woman) is “you can’t tell…you look great!” Or “aggh, I know what you mean, I’ve gained 10!” followed by “you can’t tell…you look great!”
While this conversation worked here, it might not work in a cross-cultural situation. In Brazil, for example, my initial deduction from visiting was that it’s okay to have group discussions about a person’s weight. When my husband I first began visiting 20 years ago, his family members would actually debate about whether I had gained or lost weight from the previous visit. Initially I was really hurt, and shared my feelings with my husband. What I came to realize as I learned more about the culture, however, is that it had nothing to do with being insensitive (American interpretation) and it had everything to do with being really comfortable in their bodies, regardless of size (Brazilian interpretation). That latter position is liberating, and a feeling that I like to adopt.
At the end of the day, for rewarding connection with others in cross-cultural conversation, it’s important to remember:
- Your own underlying cultural assumptions (e.g. in my culture you never publicly comment on a woman’s weight)
- The cultural norms of the person with whom you are communicating (e.g. in Brazilian culture weight is just a matter of fact, and not thought of as something sensitive)
- That personal experience may trump all (sentiments vary from individual to individual within a culture-helpful to watch and listen for cues if you don’t know someone well)
- And that each exchange is a gift. You can use the exchange as a moment of quiet personal learning as you recognize how your own cultural lens frames the conversation, or use it as a moment to share your experience and teach and learn about the difference.
p.s. Rich, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings!