The waiter has just set your main course in front of you; what looks like a simple grilled cheese sandwich with a very tasty dipping sauce. French cuisine. So much history and flavor! As you reach for your fork and knife to cut bites off of your grilled cheese, (because only animals eat with their paws), you suddenly hear the lady at the table next to you gag and spit her food back onto her plate. You look over and see she has a nice plate of escargot. With her napkin covering her mouth and look of disgust in her eyes, she says, “Ooh, guts! They still have their guts in them!” This is what I would call a social incongruity. Someone just did something that didn’t meet with the social expectations of the others in the group (the other diners and the wait staff). Generally accepted rules of behavior were violated. It should go without saying that if you go to an upscale restaurant you should expect that people are going to eat foods that are gross. But, it’s cool to eat gross foods in these types of restaurants, so no one should complain.
Sitting there, you’ve just witnessed a social incongruity. Your expectations were just violated. The lady probably realizes, too late, that she just committed a social faux pas. The situation has brought several people into the shared experience. Reactions will vary. Some will be painfully embarrassed. Some may be a bit upset, perhaps even bordering on angry. Some will be entertained by the event. And finally, some may even experience a mixture of these reactions. Personally, I am usually entertained when I experience a social or cultural incongruity, either as a primary or secondary participant. I hope to share these types of experiences with whoever would like to read them.
This is my attempt to share these incongruities. An incongruity in this case is a situation that is incongruous, not harmonious, not conforming or lacking propriety. My goal is to explore the incongruities that happen between people. An incongruity may occur when either side misunderstands the situation. It may occur when either behaves in a way that is unacceptable to the other. I hope to explore them on two levels: the cultural and the social. I have been blessed in my life in ways that prepare me to write about these types of occurrences. On the social level, I have a family that continues to delight with their entertaining behavior. Sometimes, it’s seems like we’re an engine for creating and experiencing social incongruities. On the cultural level, I was blessed to live in a foreign country for two years and have traveled to many places throughout the world. My profession has brought me many friends with similar experiences and we like to share stories.
My goal is not to share deep insights into other cultures and ways of thinking. It may happen inadvertently. I will attempt to include some background information with each story. As I discuss different cultures and society at large I will do my best to refrain from passing judgment, but I won’t be able to resist. Already you know my opinion about French cuisine. Despite my somewhat serious tone up to this point, my goal is to lighten the mood and encourage infectious laughter. It may be that my efforts will shed some light on the bigger world, or maybe it will only highlight my own social ineptitude. Either way, I hope it’s a fun ride.
The political scientist in me requires that I offer a more concrete definition of the cultural and social level of incongruities. I even plan on sticking to my definitions, unless they end up not working for me. In which case I will either carefully revise them or simply drop them.
First, I’ll cover the cultural level. A culture is a set of beliefs and behaviors shared in common by a group of people. Cultures are formed by shared histories and experiences. Often these experiences and history are determined in part by geography. In most cases, a culture has a geographic base. As you travel from one area to the next, chances are you will run across people belonging to different cultures. Interaction with another culture can be a wonderful learning experience with amazing results. When a person from one culture crosses over into another culture and begins to interact with them, there is a high probability that an incongruity will occur.
As a simple example of a cultural incongruity consider the following situation that involves language. It was spring 1995. I had been living in Novosibirsk, Russia for just over three months. Somehow I had made it through the coldest part of a Siberian winter. As a relatively new missionary in the field, I had just started training a new missionary from the United States. Brand new missionaries, affectionately known as greenies, often feel intimidated and overwhelmed when serving in a foreign country with a new language. The Russian language and Russia in the 1990s were very intimidating. During one of our meetings with a family we were teaching, my new companion spent an inordinate amount of time with his dictionary open. This was done in part as an attempt to expand his vocabulary and in part to keep himself from being pulled directly into the conversation. In this case, his efforts went a little overboard.
As we were leaving, I continued to chat with them at the door as we put our shoes and coats on. One of our hosts, I believe it was the wife, said, “Oh, look how studious! Even while putting his shoes on he looks up new words.”
Turning my attention to him, I saw that he had one foot up trying to put on a boot with one hand while holding open the dictionary with the other. The image was comical. He was on the verge of falling over. With our hostess’s question he went quite red in the face, realizing the undesirable had occurred—the attention had been turned to him.
The husband, trying to be helpful and wanting to help teach the language, asked him, “Which word are you looking at?”
Suddenly flustered, he looked down at his dictionary and read aloud the first word he found. He happed to be in the Russian to English section.
Our hosts began to laugh. I didn’t recognize the word so I asked them what it meant. It was their turn to go red in the face as they looked at each other to see who would explain it to me. Seeing their discomfort I took the dictionary from my now thoroughly embarrassed companion. The translation immediately evoked a hearty laugh from me as well. Klizma is the Russian word for enema. Neither our hosts nor my companion had expected their interaction to take the route it did.
At the time I didn’t realize it, but we had just experienced a cultural incongruity. In an attempt to keep from embarrassing himself by being involved in the conversation, my companion had stepped in it by bringing in a word that usually isn’t evoked in polite company. Entering into a discourse about an invasive procedure involving the lower end of the digestive tract, should be reserved for time with the doctor or with very good friends.
When I refer to the social level, I’m writing about what happens within one culture. Within a society the members, for the most part, have a shared set of expectations regarding behavior and interactions. Due to the shared behavioral foundation, incongruities between people should be more rare than those that happen between people of different cultures. I’m not convinced that’s the case. People belonging to one culture, one society, are together constantly, with ample opportunity to step outside of social norms. Let’s face it, without meaning to offend anyone named Harold, every society has its share of Weird Harolds. Social incongruities happen often.
Of course, we need one more example of a social incongruity to share at this point. A high school bus trip seems a promising place to start. It was football season of my senior year. We had just defeated the Dugway High School Mustangs handily. An hour or two into the return trip many of us were sliding into an uneasy sleep. Of a sudden, heads began to pop up and a low murmur of complaint began to spread out from the center of the bus. From my seat near the rear, I looked up, wondering at the cause of the commotion. The smell hit me and it was strong. Someone, around the middle of the bus had passed gas in a most serious manner. Covering my nose, I watched as the choking scent rolled further to the front of the bus. The row of coaches reacted followed by the rows of cheerleaders in front of them.
Once the putrid wave had encompassed the bus and settled low to the floor, our coach stood and made a forceful pronouncement.
“If I smell one more like that, then we will run a D Hill when we get home.”
The D Hill is the hill behind the school with a large water storage tank on the top. It has a nice wide trail up the front of it. Each day of practice we made the trip to the top at least once and sometimes twice. None of us wanted to run it in the middle of the night and none of us really wanted to smell that again. It’s important to note, however, that young men often have a respect for certain abilities. What had just been done, while being loathed for it’s social impropriety and discomfort, was impressive and demanded additional recognition. One of my best friends then stood and made his own statement:
“I don’t know who that was, but I salute you!”
Think about the incongruity just described. Farting on a bus full of high school football players, or football players of any age is hardly crossing a line in the sand of social propriety. Doing it, however, with enough potency to light up the entire bus definitely crossed a line that was not intended to be crossed. The action brought into the open two statements that usually wouldn’t have been made to a group that included the cheerleaders. Some were disgusted by the event, some were amused and some were impressed. I comfortably fell into all three camps.
Once the tumult and smell had subsided, the guilty party suddenly appeared next to my seat and slid in next to me. Quietly, he confessed his crime. I smiled and slapped him on the back. Expressing my admiration I asked him to please find another seat away from me.