Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Ah . . . Excuse me, but you’re in My Personal Space!

A while back I started a series on Identity and asked folks to list for me ten ways in which their identity was formed. From there, I tried to show that identity, no matter how singular we think of it for ourselves, is often random and not as unique as we think. Now I would like to mix things up a bit. Again, identity and how identity messes with our communication abilities is a delicate balance between our continued blindness and also those things that we take for granted. The “take for granted” aspect is particularly important because these are the things, the aspects, we don’t think to question or examine. As my mom said back in the days when I was learning how to spell: Assume means to make and Ass (out of) U (and) Me. Different cultures have different “taken for granted” ways of meanings. For example, in places in the Arab world, it is common for male friends to hold hands. Nothing sexual is suggested, it is a form of familiarity. Here in the US, two guys (or gals for that matter) walking down the street holding hands offers not the casual viewer an idea of “look at those two friends enjoying the day,” but rather, “look at those homos, why don’t they take it inside.” Of course, if you are living in a gay neighborhood, the reaction is different . . . regardless, assumptions here are decisively sexual, and often, homophonic in nature. I highly suggest that you do not walk into Saudi Arabia with these American assumptions. There is also the custom of smelling one’s breath . . . Sweet breath, good. Can you even imagine having, as a greeting here in the US, the smelling of breath??? Why, most of us would be insulted at having a nose so close to our mouth. Which brings me to my next “taken for granted” cultural-identity aspect: Space. Space, personal, is also an “assumption.” For example, here in the US, we think everyone has a right to his or her own “personal” space, but in many other countries, personal space is not a working concept. Edward Hall in his work “Hidden Dimensions” states that Westerners, in general, require twelve to twenty-five feet for their close phase of public distance. Of course, this is a huge problem for New Yorkers, but even they (and I lived there so I have a bit of an idea) have “imagined” space around them. Their personal space, in many ways, has been internalized to some degree in order to preserve their sanity. If Westerners, in general terms only, are overtly sensitive to continuous sensations of the senses, then their need for self preservation in the crowded streets of New York becomes even more essential. Which brings me to my next point: New Yorkers are inconsiderate? New Yorkers aren’t necessarily inconsiderate, but along with their need to preserve some personal space, the lack of space in New York has produced a redefinition of the public sphere. Arabs might not choose to live in New York and New Yorkers might not choose to live in Beirut, but each might be surprised how comfortable they might feel in opposing cities. This is not to say that the New Yorker would be very comfortable in Beirut, for example the Arab’s need for large open spaced buildings would disorient the average New Yorker as they are accustomed to small enclosed space. The reverse would also be true for the Beiruter in New York as the walls would feel like a tomb. Communication becomes not only about a willingness to hear each other, but about a willingness to learn about each other. We offend each other quickly and easily because we do not understand that these (and many other) “taken for granted” aspects differ from one culture to another culture, from, even, one community to another community. This is not about being PC. No, please don’t try to confuse being PC with being aware. In fact, many international companies spend a crap load of money making their employees aware of cultural differences so they don’t “blow” the deal when they are in, for argument, Japan or China. It is a simple matter of not assuming that people think or act the same way you do.

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