Social Stigma and Cultural Differences

Crass Acts, Class Acts, and Why Not Going to College is Okay

Hello everyone!

I am attaching a picture to this post, fingers crossed it goes through. I know the pictures are much more interesting.

Today I’d like to talk about something in Australian culture that’s really hard for me to put my finger on exactly, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the six or so weeks I’ve been here, so I’m going to have a go at painting a picture of my take on some social stigmas.

To spare you from reading this whole thing if you don’t want to (it’s really long), I’ll just get to the point and say I think there’s less social stigma assigned, or at least different as yet unidentified and undetected by me social stigma assigned, in Australia. (v. Colorado). I also want to clarify that Australians are not rude in the slightest. That’s not what’s going on here, this post is just discussing the different meanings assigned to some situations I’ve encountered between the two countries.

First, let me provide the context of my American perception of a few things, and for any international readers, please note I’m only one American who grew up in a relatively secluded and unpopulated part of one state out of fifty! (Colorado). A lot of the differences I’m about to describe have to do with the subtleties of my background, although there are one or two which I would be so bold as to generalize as vastly different between Australian and American cultures.

So a bit about me personally.

In my household growing up, there were definite values. They weren’t written on a chalkboard in the kitchen or anything, but everything my parents did or said consistently implied a valuation of hard work, character, good humour, honesty, and, really above all in my eyes, my parents valued being considerate, thoughtful, and conscious of others’ feelings.

For instance, a common phrase was, “How do you think that made your sister feel?” (I was, perhaps, less than angelic in my youth haha).

Therefore, conducting oneself in a manner that was conscious of others was naturally implied to be the way to go in life. Taking this path would allow you to avoid the dreaded deprivation of toys and/or your daily hour of TV. There actually wasn’t an alternative path provided. Manners were an extension of this awareness. Being polite wasn’t a set of fluffy acts that were stuffy and showy, they were a format for which to behave pleasantly and considerately, conscious of the human experience of those around you.

And in return, you could expect the same degree of manners from others in consideration of your personal experience in the interaction/situation occurring. If the other party failed in manners, you first graciously assumed they were ignorant of the effects of their behavior. (As part of your set of manners). And then you proceeded to take great offense if they were still eating their sandwich like a wild animal at the dinner table after ten minutes, remaining woefully unaware of the uncomfortable circumstances they were creating.

My mom is going to get a kick out of this post because I was nearly always that person eating like a wild animal at our dinner table, but hey, that’s how you learn that being a wild animal is not okay.

And, contrary to what some people who believe manners are just showy think, there is definite logic to most manners. For instance, chewed up food is a disgusting sight. Therefore, chomping and chewing with your mouth open is frowned upon because it is a disgusting sight. Easy.  

In a slightly more offensive case, one does not walk around saying curse words, because if you consider the literal meaning of each curse word—well now aren’t you appalled at what you’re actually saying, literally with that expression?

This isn’t to say I’ve never used a curse word myself! I’m just trying to build up some context for why manners are what they are to me, in America, the way I was raised.

Basically, the whole foundation for the kind of manners I was taught wasn’t so much a list of rules, but it was built on the idea that you never want to do anything that makes someone else feel really uncomfortable. It isn’t nice, and hopefully, they will treat you as you treat them and thus you may avoid being in uncomfortable situations as well.

Also, despite what your own definition of uncomfortable might be, manners just like, covers everything, even if you personally wouldn’t be offended, you know that someone else might be offended, therefore you act in accordance with that inclusive judgment.

So there you have it.

And it’s also worth mentioning that while I personally don’t necessarily appear socially awkward, I do have to work a bit at deciding how best to proceed in social situations (mostly by looking at what everyone else is doing), and that largely contributes to the degree I notice differences in social manners/codes/behaviors. Aka the below phenomenon is probably exaggerated because I just notice these things more, being that observation is the stuff of my social survival.

All of that being said, I stepped off the airplane from New Zealand into Australia and was picked up by my driver, who proceeded to tell me he was recently bankrupt, he had lost a lot of land, his fiancée was unreachable and in Russia attending to her dying mother, his father committed suicide, and, oh yeah, that on the left is a statue of the mayor of Adelaide.

The university hired this company to pick me up and welcome me.

He talked very loud, very fast, and used a lot of curse words. At this point I had been awake for about 20 hours straight, and before that had only slept for about 4 hours. I probably looked like a wild animal. (Unlike eating like a wild animal, looking like one just can’t be helped sometimes). Yet rather than pointedly telling this guy he’s brought a lot of doom upon himself, I managed to politely nod and utter the occasional remark feigning interest such as “Oh, is that right?”

But seriously, so uncomfortable. All I can think is, let me out of this taxi.

As I tumbled out of the taxi (finally, land!) and unloaded my suitcases at 9 Redden Ave., I was a bit shocked. But I figured it was just one cab driver with a bit of bad luck and a penchant for hearing his own voice. And I was EXHAUSTED.

Fast forward and I’m at my first day in the office in Australia (corporate internship). The guy on the phone next to me is using the F word as he’s on the phone with someone. His office phone. He is presumably talking to another employee over the phone, definitely in the presence of other employees in our corporate office, where everyone is impeccably dressed in business suits.

And I’m blown away!

At my U.S. office, one does not casually banter with other employees using the F word. Ever. Especially in a meeting, and this was what appeared to be happening.

This guy (who is super, duper nice and an awesome desk-neighbor) wasn’t an exception at all to the office culture. Though it’s a male-dominated workforce, I’ve heard both sexes throw about the F-word when conversing with people in the office and on the phone. Across divisions. Young. Old. Whatever. Cursing is normal. They use the f word as a normal adjective such as “very.”

That actually really shocked me.

I would never, ever in a million years use the F-word in an office. Really in life in general. The most I would go would be to say “hell” or “damn” and I still don’t think that’s a good idea in the office.

An Australian employee from Melbourne that I spent the afternoon shadowing told me that he thought Americans were very polite, which basically contradicts every international perception of Americans I’ve ever had. I thought we were a loud and unobservant lot who constantly accidentally offended other cultures (but we have good intentions). That’s the picture I had.

But I totally get what this employee was telling me. He was comically polite to me in what I consider a good-faith gesture of trying to abide by American culture (though it was a bit over the top). I always entered and exited everywhere first, he stood up when I came to a table, he opened every car door, building door, pressed the elevator buttons so I would strain my dainty hands… (I’m telling you, comically overdone and nothing like America but a wonderfully nice gesture).

In yet another example, and this is something I consider most important (so they curse a lot and don’t hold doors for you here, not that different from America), conversation is different.

Australians are very good-natured and can take a joke. They kid each other, they make fun of each other, they make fun of themselves, they’re always ready to laugh at a bizarre or normal situation—doesn’t matter. Aussies love to laugh. I find them impressively hilarious.

However, sometimes it can create an uncomfortable moment (for me—they just roll with it).

I was at the Adelaide Cup (horse race) and I was talking to the guy next to me, just general conversation. He’s with a  big group of friends, and one of them, who, granted, was pretty tipsy, came up to me and joked that one of his friends in the group was single if I wanted a date, because the guy had recently broken up with his missus.

…awkward.

What are you supposed to say to that.

Sorry? Great? Yikes? The weather’s nice today? Where’d you get your shoes, I really like them? So are we going to dinner now? Pick me up at eight? Congratulations? What’d you do? Oh I think #6 is winning now?

Yeah, none of that.

That’s not an unusual joke here either, and yet it never loses it’s incredible complications for me as a conversation participant.

I constantly find myself completely out of my depths in terms of tact here. How can you possibly be in Australia and remain masterfully tactful? You can’t. You get thrown into these weird and awkward conversations where everyone else can laugh or pretend to laugh, and I would just love to disappear. My face turns so red sometimes, it’s unreal, and then an Australian might ask “Did we embarrass you?” Which yeah, doesn’t help calling attention to that either.

My host manager here gave me an incredibly thoughtful gift of chocolates in a bag branded with the chocolate shop name when I first arrived. Naturally, when someone gives you food, you eat it and remark on how delicious it is. So I did. I left the bag with the attached welcome note on my desk, because I liked it and wanted to save it.

Well, five weeks later, a guy in the office strolls over and loudly asks why I haven’t eaten the chocolates my manager gave me. Which if I hadn’t eaten it (as he assumed), wouldn’t it have been uncomfortable to call attention to the fact that I didn’t like the gift? My manager sits across from me. And if I had (as I did) wouldn’t it have been uncomfortable to acknowledge that I ate all the chocolate up and none was left? I feel like his assumption I hadn’t eaten it and ensuing surprise at its disappearance implies I snarfed down a bunch of chocolate when it had been FIVE WEEKS, JASON. Five. Weeks.

Cue the red face.

Drawing attention to the plight of my desk chocolate is kind of funny, but sometimes someone will jokingly say something pretty coarse at the office, and what am I supposed to say to it? It just creates this awkward vacuum of uncharted social territory for me. I don’t think coarse humor is very funny, and yet clearly when someone makes a joke it calls for you to laugh, funny or not, except I just feel colossally uncomfortable and also really conscious of whether it will offend anyone else if I do fake-laugh or don’t fake-laugh or whatever.

I cannot possibly appease the social standard of laughing at someone’s joke (funny or not) and not offending others (again the all-encompassing sweep of manners) all the while falling within the realms of my true standards without appearing snobby, stiff, or highfalutin’ (thanks dictionary.com ).

My roommate says I think too much.

The biggest cultural disconnect for me here is in taste. I’ve encountered a lot of people that I work with, that I attend classes with, or that I just hear talking at a café that I feel are saying really distasteful things or acting distastefully, but for them it isn’t distasteful at all.

And this coming from America, which is definitely not the land of class-acts, etiquette, and good behaviour. The difference being that in America, everyone knows you’re being tactless or distasteful or outright offensive and you are identified as such when making rude jokes or swearing like a sailor at your corporate office, whereas here it’s acceptable, it’s okay, it’s not rude.

Nobody around me is bothered by a lowbrow one-liner.

Though I’m often mildly offended,  I don’t dislike it so much because I’m fiercely outraged, but I more dislike it because it puts me in an uncomfortable social situation of not knowing what to do or how to act. That’s the point I disagree with, and I think that’s why we have a more rigidly structured set of social stigmas associated with this kind of thing. I say it’s helpful so everyone can have a nice time, other Americans (people in general) might say it’s oppressive or unnecessary. 

What I’m taking away from this disconnect in a broader sense, is that there isn’t so much social stigma associated with being or acting a certain way here in Australia.

Although in the context of manners I view it as a bit of a negative thing, in a wider arena of life I think it might be positive.

For instance, if you don’t have a college degree here, it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s not given a second thought or label, and you can still get a good job here without a college degree. You aren’t shunned if you don’t attend college right away, if at all.

I think that’s a brilliant attitude, because I look at the U.S. and my own college education sometimes, and I wonder if it’s actually applicable to my future, or whether I just did it because I didn’t feel there was ever an option to do anything else in the society I lived in. I do think college is for me and that I still would have gone had I grown up in a different country, but for some of my peers I can see how this seemingly pre-destined measure is a bad thing.

For some jobs, do you really need an $80,000 education? If you get an $80,000 education, did you really get what you needed for your job? Or could they have trained you? Would an apprenticeship have been better?

Some people in my corporate office here don’t have college degrees, young and old, and they seem to be blazing through their work and getting everything done! (It’s actually sort of silly to think that one would be rendered completely incompetent without college).

There is no way my U.S. office would hire an intern who wasn’t going to college or planning on attending college.

Also, if you don’t get a full-time job straight out of college here and instead you choose to bartend or something for a year, no one cares or give you grief about it at all. Out of all the uncomfortable jokes I‘ve heard, I’ve never heard one about that because it isn’t given a second thought!

The bottom line is, there’s less of a manual to life here. There is less of a code. And I think it’s a bit of a negative thing when I have to stand there and feel ridiculously uncomfortable when a crude joke is made, but I also think it’s a hugely positive thing when I look at all the different lifestyles and choices that are open without mass judgment and generalizations being thrown upon you.

So in the end, I don’t think it can be called “good” or “bad,” like most things in culture, it’s just different.

-Nicole

P.S. I’m soliciting submissions for responding to distasteful jokes! My roommate suggested “And so it is,” while shaking your head no as a universal response. 

 “Did you eat all those chocolates?”

-And so it is.

 

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