Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘american’

Let’s Drop the Hyphen

Have you dipped a toe into the whole 23 and Me world? You know, the company that will analyze your DNA and tell you about your heritage. What percentage you are of this or that. Think for a moment about how your answer the question “what are your?” when someone is asking about your nationality. How do you respond? It’s a terrifically important question, more precisely your answer is terrifically important, especially in these fraught times of machine gun-toting police officers in airports.

How do you respond?

Confession time first, or course. Up until yesterday I typically answered with something along the lines of “I’m a mutt, but I’m mostly Irish.” Accurate enough, at least in terms of heritage back some long time ago, if just the tiniest bit dismissive of my maternal grandfather who was a first generation American of 100% German lineage. And there, in that last word–lineage–we find the linguistic accuracy necessary for each of us to begin to structure a better answer. Better for us, and better for everyone who shares a country to begin to think about how we answer the “what are you?” question.

Henceforth I shall interpret that as a question about my nationality and my answer shall be “I am an American*.” Full stop.

To be sure I will be happy to engage in a conversation about lineage because there are some pretty neat stories about my grandparents and their parents to be told. But me? It’s been many, many generations and much more than 100 years since my ancestors left whatever shores and became Americans. As soon as they married outside of their ancestral tribe they became, and more importantly identified, as American. Isn’t it time the rest of us follows suit?

Put me down as a vote to drop the hyphen. You know, the ( – ) between “X” and “American” we so often hear when “what are you, what nationality are you?” is floated. Wether born here or bourn and chosen, you are an American. This is not a “my country right or wrong” or “love it or leave it” kind of thing. Not one bit. It’s about how you identify, and then by extension how you support. I am an American. I live here, work here, vote here, and pay taxes here (boy, do I pay taxes). Sure, it’s a big country, and the experience of being an American is certainly different in NYC where I am sitting, Cleveland where God willing I will dine at home tonight, or in LA. But Americans we are, one and all. I hope for and will work for a better America, as I hope you will, too. We can keep the entire spirits and coffee industries afloat discussing what “better” means.

As Americans.

*Or Irishman, or Pakistanis, or Canadiens if the shoe (or skate) fits. Rejoice in what is good about your country. One need not disavow one’s lineage to embrace one’s nationality.

When Cultural Norms Collide

It takes very little effort to observe the intersection of cultural norms. Indeed, it takes a substantial effort NOT to notice them when they collide, as they must, in the polyglot that is the United States. Physicians, it’s been noted, are little more than paid observers; I see these collisions daily. What are we to do when cultures collide?

Now, I’m not talking about the “old as eternity” cultural divide between teenagers and their parents; in the end the teens will either hew closely to the cultural norms of their heritage or fall more in line with those of their present address. What I am interested in are those cultural norms that remain an integral part of the fully formed adult one might encounter in a rather typical day, and by extension whether and how one should respond to any cultural dissonance. Or for that matter, WHO should be the one to respond.

It’s the tiny ones that catch my attention. Personal space for example. The typical American personal space extends one arm’s length between individuals. Something shorter than a handshake, more like a handshake distance with bent elbows. The Mediterranean space involves an elbow, too: put your hand on your shoulder and point your elbow to the front and you have measured the personal space of a Sicilian. Asians on the other hand occupy a much larger personal space that can be loosely measured by a fully extended fist-bump. Something which would be anathema in polite Japanese company, but no matter. Gotta leave room for a proper bow, after all.

My favorite little example of the variety of cultural norms that swirl in the soup of the great Melting Pot is the affectionate greeting. You know, what most fully acclimatized Americans would recognize as the “bro hug” shoulder bump and clasp, something that would be appalling to a Parisian or Persian, or indeed even to a Princess of the Antebellum South. Yet even here there are differences. The Princess, joined by legions of Housewives of Wherever and Junior Leaguers everywhere are ninjas in the practice of the single-cheek air kiss. It should be noted that ~90% of men are NOT ninjas in this particular art, and are expected by its practitioners to bungle the act.

Persians and Parisians, on the other hand, find the one-cheek air kiss to accomplish only half the job. They, and others who share centuries old cultures, warmly greet each other with a two-cheek kiss. I am sure that there are nuances involved here that remain unseen and unknown to both most men and certainly most (all?) who don’t share the heritage. (As an aside let me just say that I am a huge fan of this particular cultural norm because it means that one of my very favorite colleagues, Neda, always arrives bearing TWO kisses).

And please, don’t even get me started on kissing hands. I’m pretty much O-fer life on that one. Come to think of it, as a nation of men we are winless on the kissing the hand thing.

So what’s the point here? Two, I think. First, there is a certain boorishness in the failure to observe and recognize the existence of these cultural norms when they are encountered. Some, like those I’ve mentioned, are the relative equivalent of a soft breeze, neither strong enough to fill a sail nor de-leaf a tree. Recognizing them, even in the tiny manner that one tries not to trample on them even if they will be ignored, is a tiny gesture of kindness, respect, and courtesy.

The flip side, number two, is deciding which of these norms is the default setting. Here things get a bit stickier, especially when cultural norms run afoul of SOP on the particular ground they occupy. Think air kiss between a man and a woman in Afghanistan, for example. Bowing in the boardroom of Samsung in San Clemente. There are more, and bigger examples, but you get the idea. Here I think geography holds the trump card: “when in Rome” should be your guide, especially with cultural norms where the collision may be substantially more impactful then whether or when you turn the other cheek, a tornado to the above’s tickling breeze.

Every land has culture; there’s culture here in the land of CrossFit for example. Personal space? Roughly one Pendlay bar apart, at least in the gym! Bro hugs with the guys, one cheek air kiss with every girl! Fist bumps all around, most especially with the CrossFitter who was DFL (if you have to ask…). The only thing that could be better would be if we could all agree on the two-cheek greeting thing.

Maybe if I could get my friend Neda to do CrossFit.