oblivious to culture

Here's an interesting (and possibly infuriating) aspect about culture. Some communication and customs are very obviously culture-specific, but some exist at such a subconscious level that we can't really identify what they are in our own cultures.

In Kenya, there are separate greetings for people who are above you on the social hierarchy, people who are your equals, and people who are below you. In some cases, it's obvious who is who: a child is below me, an elderly person is above me. But in some cases it's not that clear to an outsider.

Me, trying to learn some conscious culture - how to make pilau

We went to have lunch at our friend's house. We didn't know who would be there apart from us, the friend, and her daughter, but there are always other family members around. Also, this friend is of a socio-economic status that it is safe to assume she has house help. (Here, you don't have to be outrageously wealthy to have a housekeeper who works every day or even lives with you.)

When we arrived, there were several people around the house - a few young men (probably her younger brothers or nephews) and a woman working in the kitchen. The woman was neither young nor old. To me, she could have been anyone - sister, cousin, aunt, housekeeper? To Rodgers, it was obvious who she was.

Everyone greeted us, shaking hands and saying whatever greeting was appropriate. Kenyans are compulsive about their greetings. An aside: if you don't greet someone, it's extremely rude, yet when you greet someone, it's not because you intend to have a conversation with them or even care what they say (the response is the same regardless of their circumstances), it's because it's required by custom to say a certain greeting and receive a certain reply. I don't really "get" the obsession with greetings, especially the super long ones they exchange in their native language. But I digress...

The woman came out of the kitchen to greet us, and she wouldn't let go of my hand after I greeted her, as if she was expecting more. Eventually she said the respectful greeting to me, which I didn't find appropriate at all, so I asked if she was saying that to me.

She said (in English), "No, you say it to me!"

I was totally confused. Who was this woman demanding I greet her with the respectful greeting and why?! I thought it would be rude to ask, "Why? Who are you?" But I was so embarrassed that I was frozen like a deer in headlights - I couldn't say anything.

Rodgers knew, intuitively, that this was our friend's mother. He had never met her before. She was not introduced. (While Kenyans love introducing themselves to large groups as they are giving a speech, when meeting you they expect you to know who they are and don't introduce themselves or other people.) And yet, he knew who she was. He couldn't explain to me how he knew this.

I told him that he's going to have to start cluing me in because I don't have this subconscious knowledge of his culture, and though he has it, he is oblivious to it. I have noticed other subconscious knowledge, communication, and practices in this and other cultures, so I assume there must be something like this in my culture, but whatever it is, I must also be oblivious.


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