Thursday, February 21, 2008

When cultures collide

Every now and again, something happens that reminds me that we can't take for granted that the learning experiences (or anything else for that matter) we provide will make sense to everyone. We sometimes under-estimate the role that culture can play.

Even though I live as something of a cultural misfit in a country not my own, I guess I have grown accustomed to enough little quirks of the British psyche not to notice them. But today, I witnessed an incident that brought home with a thump how different cultures react in situations. Of course, I am generalising enormously - we are all individuals, but there remain certain cultural tendencies.

This afternoon, I boarded a rather full train in Birmingham, bound for home. Almost all the seats on the train were reserved. However, some people had taken a chance that the person might have sat somewhere else or might not show. Right next to where I was standing, a man and a woman were sitting in two seats within a cluster of four. An elegantly dressed woman trailing two offspring in their early 20s strode up and declared loudly in an American accent, "Right, someone doesn't belong here, because we have three seats booked and there are only two open." The man assured her that he had booked his seat. The woman, seated next to the man, and against the wall, said meekly in a local accent "Would you like me to move?" To which the owner of the seat replied, "No. I want you to get out. Those are our seats."

Still quietly, but dripping with the sort of sweetly understated irony that appears to be the exclusive province of a certain sector of English society, the woman said, as she collected her things, "Thank you for asking so nicely."

Realising that her barb had gone unnoticed by the American woman, she then said with just the merest hint of assertiveness, "You might have been more polite."

As the American woman, her son and daughter took their seats, and the English woman walked away they both said (one sotto voce and the other more volubly) "So rude!" The American woman added "What's the point of reserving seats if people are just going to help themselves to them?"

Of course, no-one else said a thing, but a few other passengers found a way to make it abundantly clear to the English woman that they were on her side.

I wondered which way the general support would have gone if the same incident had played out in the US.

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