Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Interactional Etiquette

By Thomas Kochman - 07.08.2009

An article in the July 8, 2009 New York Times on Interracial Roommates  focused on the social and prejudicial aspects of sharing a room with someone of a different race but neglected to deal with cultural matters which directly affect willingness to engage or, in many cases, tolerate different preferences and lifestyles. One frequent African American/U.S. mainstream clash around sharing the same room or even same floor at universities before headphones ameliorated the problem was over when and how loud to play their music –African American students generally preferring to play their music louder and later at night than white students. What’s cultural about this are the different standards regulating expressive behavior. Blacks generally prefer more potent, dynamic and forceful expressions whereas mainstream whites prefer and tolerate expressions that are more modest and subdued.

What’s also culturally relevant is who is expected to accommodate whom? Mainstream U.S. cultural etiquette puts the onus on assertors to monitor and regulate the level of their expression to that which receivers can comfortably manage which socially gives receivers control over how loud or forceful expressive behavior can become.  African American cultural etiquette gives assertors much greater latitude and license to set the emotional tone of what goes on thereby placing those on the receiving end in the more accommodating position and role.

These differences define what constitutes appropriate behavior in the two cultures and often collide when blacks and whites share the same venue. One example that I cited in Black and White Styles in Conflict occurred during a university theatre production of Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. One black woman, laughing heartedly and thoroughly enjoying the play’s bawdiness and humor, was hurt by the comment of a white woman seating near her who said, “You are really outrageous!” When she asked what was wrong, the white woman, said, “You are laughing so loud. I mean come on! It’s funny, but ….” The black woman replied, “Daag, it’s a comedy. Ain’t you supposed to laugh?”

What gave the white woman license to criticize the black woman was the U.S. mainstream rule of etiquette that compels assertors to be respectfully considerate of the “feelings” (read sensibilities) of those around them. What was behind the hurt feelings of the black woman, beyond having been outwardly criticized, was her cultural standard that receivers need to be considerate of the “feelings” (read genuine emotional expressiveness) of those around them. As she remarked, in her recollection of the incident, “I guess I was supposed to feel the laughter but not express it, at least not in the way that I felt it.”

What are some experiences or problems that you have had engaging members of other groups that you might attribute to different views of what is (or is not) appropriate behavior?

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