Real simple? Well, it depends…

14 Feb

I recently received an e-mail from a colleague who was in a Blink workshop on cultural competency. In the workshop, I suggested that cultural competency isn’t an end unto itself: it’s a lens and a means for connecting with people who aren’t you, in order to do whatever it is you’re trying to do–understanding math, increasing profits or finding a cure for cancer.

Or, as it turns, reading a magazine article.

My colleague shared an article from lifestyle magazine Real Simple, titled “How to Handle Sticky Situations: Tactical tips and talking points that can help you survive an awkward social scenario” by Elizabeth Schatz Passarella. In this article, Passarella presents scenarios like:

  • A friend asks if she looks good in an outfit, and the answer is something other than yes.
  • You arrive at a party and find that you don’t know a single person in the room.
  • You find yourself walking alongside a casual acquaintance and you don’t want to chat all the way to your destination.
  • You called someone by the wrong name―and it wasn’t someone you just met.

Passarella then tells you the “right” way to handle each situation. (Ex. If “you find yourself walking alongside a casual acquaintance and you don’t want to chat all the way to your destination,” she suggests, “If you can do it discreetly and naturally, turn a corner or ‘duck into a coffee shop or public restroom,’ says Leil Lowndes, author of How to Talk to Anyone.” Passarella also thoughtfully provides a hyperlink to buy the book.)

Thinking back to the workshop, my colleague had a few questions about the assumptions and perspectives of the article: to whom would Passarella’s advice make sense? whom might it offend? did the author consider cultural norms and differences in forming the advice of how “best” to handle these situations? is it intentional that in the accompanying illustration there’s only one person of color depicted?

To these questions I would add: who says these situations are sticky in the first place? and even if they are sticky, why do we need to fix them? That presumption, in and of itself, is predicated on an insistence on personal comfort in interpersonal situations that not all cultures entertain.

Having read the article, I don’t read a lot of self-awareness (of even having a cultural framework that is defining how Passarella views these situations and their solutions). And that is evidenced by her advice. For example:

Situation: You called someone by the wrong name―and it wasn’t someone you just met.

If you flub someone’s name a single time, it’s fine to apologize and make light of the situation. “Say something about lack of sleep or that you’ve had a really crazy day, and move on. Don’t bring it up again, even to joke about it―this will just extend the awkwardness,” says Caroline Tiger. However, if you have been calling your cubicle mate the wrong name since day one, “the apology should be in earnest,” says Tiger. “Validate her mortification by reacting in a big way, and do it in person: ‘I can’t believe I’ve been calling you Nancy for three weeks. I am so, so sorry. What can I do to make it up to you?'”

I’m struck by how Passarella frames this interaction entirely in terms of the comfort of the person who has just called someone else by the wrong name. My advice (and as a disclaimer, let me say, this isn’t “right,” but it is self-reflective and grounded in the habits of cultural competency that I am working on habituating):

  • Notice that you’re uncomfortable. Consider how your identity and your relationship to the other person (including status and differences/similarities of identity like age, race, sex and other social markers) inform your discomfort.
  • Consider why you just–or repeatedly–got their name wrong. What’s going on with you? What part of your error is about them (or how you perceive them)? And why does getting their name wrong matter to you, both in general and in this particular situation?
  • Discern your intention in choosing whether or not to address the situation. And recognize what you need: what’s about you (which is natural–after all, you wouldn’t be in this situation without you–but making an apology all about you isn’t really doing anyone else any favors).
  • If you are going to acknowledge what you’ve done, choose a time and a place when you can be present to say or do what you need to. Then, with a clear intention, and knowing that your impact may be different than you intend, give it a shot.

This is not to say that Passarella’s advice is wrong: in fact, I find it very interesting as a cultural study. I just wish it were presented that way. Because as it stands, I’m just the “Advice from an Asian-American Women” sidebar to Passarella’s [implied regular] rules of etiquette.

**Thanks to EW for e-mailing and sharing this article. I love this kind of e-mail!!

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