Today’s Cultural Defective: A Humorous Short Story

ImageThe past few weeks our family has been busy traveling around visiting universities with our son, who will be a senior in high school as of next week, as well as visiting family and, of course, working in between. Many thanks to all our wonderful guest bloggers who contributed posts during this time.

We are home again, and I thought you might enjoy a humorous “Cultural Defective” or cultural misstep story that happened to us upon our return. The guard, our neighbor, and our family had a good chuckle over it. Hopefully we’ll be a bit clearer in our communication with our building staff going forward, but more importantly, we gained a better understanding of our own worldview and that of the people working in our building. Here’s the story:

We live in a large condominium building. We receive a newspaper delivered to our door every day. Normally when we leave town, we tell the building staff that they are welcome to keep and read our paper while we are gone, and that we don’t need them back. It tends to be much easier and less confusing than starting and stopping delivery, and the staff enjoys the small perk. This time, however, our neighbor was in town, so we invited him to take and read our paper every day while we were gone.

Today, one of our building guards showed up at our door with a huge stack of newspapers. He most kindly explained to us that someone had been stealing our newspaper every day while we were gone (we live on a floor with three other families). Therefore, the staff had decided to hold the papers in the office, to guard them, and give them to us upon our return.

I guess we should have communicated our plans with the building staff more clearly. This was certainly nothing I would have expected. I do hope that at least the staff read them!

To me this incident is refreshing in that it didn’t really harm anyone, as many cross-cultural misunderstandings unfortunately do. However, I’m sure if confused our neighbor (why has newspaper delivery stopped?)!
If we take a bit of time to apply the Cultural Detective Method, we can easily see the value differences it illustrates:
  • The value placed upon a daily newspaper delivery—a luxury available to professionals, but beyond the reach of a laborer here in western Mexico.
  • Feelings of protectiveness and responsibility—the building guards are accustomed to a huge status differential; they don’t want to do anything that might disappoint a homeowner, or that an owner might accuse them of doing incorrectly. They were protecting us, and they were protecting themselves.

In my worldview, it never occurred to me that an owner might want six weeks of newspapers saved. Also, I have a different the sense of responsibility than our guards have. I might figure, “Hey, if the lady didn’t tell me to save her papers for her, or what to do with them while she is gone, I can’t be responsible.”

Of course, it could also have been that the guards really wanted their few weeks of leisurely newspaper reading, and resented an owner (our neighbor) taking what would otherwise be theirs, but I really don’t think that’s what happened. They just figured we’d forgotten about our paper, and that a neighbor was taking advantage of our absence. And, they did the right thing—they protected us.

This is just a small, humorous story of daily life as an expat, and how easily any of us can jump to negative conclusions. Or, if we take a few moments to reflect on our missteps, we can gain insight about ourselves, others, and living together enjoyably.

We have such a wide range of readers—I’ll bet many of you have similar anecdotes of unintended consequences to your actions (or lack of action) as you have navigated life in a foreign culture. We’d be delighted to hear your “Cultural Defective” stories and the insights you gained through the experiences.

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