Friday, April 29, 2011

more cultural observations

I've realized something in the last few weeks. And it's a funny thing. I think I'm freaking the Romanians out, and in some strangely inverse way they're freaking me out. Imagine that game with the ball on a long string attached to a pole and now imagine us hot-potatoing that ball back and forth like to touch it for a second would burn your hand off.

So for me it's the money questions. No surprises here--we got those when we came the first time, so they don't catch me off guard, but I don't particularly like them. Mainly I don't like being asked how much money I make each month. Just freaks me out, makes me uncomfortable, the most vocal of my weird mixed-culture backgrounds making a face that says: slow yo roll.

But here's the thing. I'm doing it to them too. It's the vulnerability issue--it's happened with several different people recently. Someone says something to me, example, I don't know, "I don't trust Hungarians." (*No one has ever actually said this to me*) Probably the worst hypothetical example I can think of in terms of being loaded and more extreme than the everyday example, but it illustrates what I mean in that it is not just a surface-level statement but clearly has something that can be fleshed out. (I'm using words like clearly but let me note that I'm only referring to myself--that's the whole cross-cultural deal, of course, that we're thinking differently, coming at it differently.) So my first and most natural reaction to a statement like that is to follow it, find out where it goes. I ask, why? Not because I'm nosy but because a) I assume if you make a statement like that you're comfortable enough talking about it to go further with it; b) if we're having a conversation at all chances are I'm interested enough in you as a person to hear more--it's part of why I do this job: I love to know people; c) there's the cultural part in that the culture I come out of is just much more vulnerable as a baseline; and d) there's the lack of language skills right now which sometimes translates into a lack of conversation skills--the ones I have in English disappear with limited vocabulary and sometimes it's easier to word-vomit de ce? without thinking and let the other person talk than it is to think of a more appropriate response and then formulate the sentence. So it just kind of happens. And meanwhile, the Romanian with whom I am attempting to converse is saying with his or her face in a language as clear to me as if it were English: girl slow yo roll.

And then the conversation dies, boom, just like that. Clearly not the desired outcome. And until I can do conversational gymnastics in Romanian...

Now I'm certain that there is an equally long and logical explanation as to why Romanians ask the how-much-money questions. And I would love to know--time to go have this conversation with a Romanian.

In the meantime, though, I want to be aware. There's the cultural side of this, but then I also think I have spent the last five years with the same people and that's longer than I've spent anything since I was about ten. So there's a certain level of intimacy with people that I'm used to, and it's easy to forget that even in the most conducive of circumstances that takes lots of time, and even if I'm comfortable others may not be.

Certainly openness is something I value, and there is space for it here for sure, it just looks a little different than in my culture. What to do in the meantime? Something more like softening it, molding it within the culture here, I think. Being aware.

So, new goal for now: quit harassing Romanians. Sounds like a plan :)


  1. The "how much money you make" question pisses me off and I'm Romanian... I don't understand why people ask it but sometimes I ask it too... it's just curiosity... In your case they might ask the money question because they can't understand why you left America to come in Romania...
    In my case they ask it because they want to know if I got a good job or I'm a stupid guy working cheap.

  2. Between Romanians the question regarding how much money you make is a way of prospecting the job market... people want to know how much an engineers gets at X company versus Y company... or how much a customer relations person does. It's just curiosity... Or they want to know if someone got a good deal or he's working for peanuts :).
    But in you case I believe they want to know why you came in Romania... they don't understand why you left US for RO and they believe that this question will satisfy their curiosity. There aren't many foreigners coming in Romania and usually those who come here come either to retire either because they make more money or to start a business.

  3. I don't believe that asking Romanians why they hate hungarians pisses them off... probably it makes them happy because they can explain their hatred.

  4. Hrmm. Well, while I've heard the sentiment before among some people, no one has ever actually said anything like that me about Hungarians. Purely hypothetical--I should change it, really, I just couldn't think of a better example while writing it.

    That said, regarding the money questions that makes a lot of sense. This is why I love to understand the logic behind things--somehow it makes a huge difference. And even if something is hard to deal with, once you understand it it usually makes it a good deal easier. You might even relate to it :)

    Thanks for commenting!!