I went to Philadelphia for a conference recently. Staying with a friend in the suburbs, I took the commuter train to the meeting. I went into a small train station filled with regulars and asked the agent for a ticket “downtown” for the “rush hour” fare. As soon as I said it, I realized that’s lingo used in my home area of DC. I should have said I was going to “center city” during “peak” time. I was immediately spotted as someone not from here—an outsider. It is amazing how quickly you can feel uncomfortable when you are different.
Made me think about how many times people feel uncomfortable, feel like outsiders, because they don’t have the right words or act the right way. Sometimes they don’t know what is expected of them. Sometimes they act they way they were taught assuming that is appropriate. But the big question is who decides what is right?
We each have a culture, a combination of our family’s history and traditions, the place we grew up, our religion, our family structure, our gender, and everything else that impacts who we are. In a classroom, if a student does something that might be appropriate for her culture, but isn’t what the teacher thinks is right based on her own culture, the student may be branded as an outsider – someone who doesn’t fit in. Maybe the student stands a little too close to the teacher whose own comfort zone requires people to keep their distance. “I’m not a ‘touch-er’,” a colleague recently said to me. I wondered if I had broken her cultural rules without thinking since I come from a family of huggers and hand-grabbers.
Maybe a parent has been at a school meeting and loudly asserted her point. Other parents whisper behind her back, “She doesn’t need to yell.” The mom is branded as an outsider, someone who doesn’t follow the rules. Yet in her culture, if you are engaged, you raise your voice and stand your ground. To her, yelling is something completely different.
One of the challenges of good communication is understanding that your own way of communicating – your words, your voice, your body language – is not necessarily the right way. There are other ways of communicating which may also be appropriate, even if they aren’t your way. Is a parent not paying attention because she doesn’t become part of a conversation, or was she taught to listen to everyone else first? Is a child being rude by not looking the teacher in the eye, or do his cultural rules dictate that you show respect to adults by looking down?
Back in Philly, when I asked for a ticket downtown for a rush hour fare, the ticket agent still understood me. He politely handed me my ticket with a warm smile. Yes, there is more than one right way to get your point across. And the response of the other person can mean the difference between feeling welcome or uncomfortable.