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Some of our friends (and their friends) have come to our aid lately with donations and gifts to help with Hannah’s challenges. We’re very grateful for those, and for prayers and support of all kinds. It also got me to thinking about something that is (surprise!) communication-related: communication of gratitude is culturally bound.

I remember when I was growing up in West Tennessee, my mother told me that it was impolite to open gifts in the presence of the giver. I don’t think she ever explained why–just that it “wasn’t done.” I’ve speculated over the years, since every custom comes from some practical consideration, at least at its time of origin. Perhaps it was to avoid unseemly competition, or social pressure to give a bigger gift? Potentially a face-saving device?

Mom and Dad are gone now, so I can’t ask them about it, and I honestly have no idea if it was something peculiar to our family, or if it was more generally an assumption of politeness in our region.

In any case, I ran into a problem with it some years ago. We had just moved into our new house, and friends put together a house-warming for us. They brought gifts, which we gratefully placed on a table, and then served some snacks and sat around the living room visiting with friends. Out of unquestioned habit, we left the gifts to be opened later, and everyone seemed fine with that until one couple left in a huff, saying something like, “Come on, let’s go. They don’t care about our gifts.”

The rest of the company seemed a bit stunned by this. It’s worth noting that the couple in question “weren’t from around here,” but I really don’t know if it was a regional difference. Certainly, they inferred a different “meaning” than what we intended.

A couple of days ago a kind co-worker handed me an envelope and said, “It’s not much, but I hope it will help as you deal with your challenges.” I was deeply touched, and said so, talked a little bit, and then went to my car, where I finally opened the envelope.

The amount of the gift isn’t important to this story, except to say that it was in an amount that requires thought. Again, we are quite grateful for it.

Then I started second-guessing myself. Was I perceived as polite? Or uncaring?

So I asked. My friend and co-worker was kind enough to share insights here, i.e., she didn’t think anything about it one way or the other. She is a little more aware of the usually unspoken and unexamined cultural assumptions we all make, because she is a native of East Tennessee whose husband is from another country.

“It was just a blessing to me that I might in some small way help you and your family,” she told me. “When I went to [my husband’s native country] I was very conscious of the customs and norms of the people and country.  What I realized was that they have very definite norms and customs, and in America it is very varied according to the area you were raised or the upbringing of your parents.”

We expect variations between countries, but we can miss the fact that such variations may occur just within the borders of a single state.

I have found two things to be useful for this.

  1. When I’m on the receiving end, always choose an interpretation that favors politeness. No doubt, sometimes people intend to be rude, but most of the time they don’t, and even if they do, my peace of mind is higher if I assume good intentions.
  2. When I’m not sure of the polite action, I follow my wife’s advice: ask. It’s better to ask an ignorant question and get educated than to take an ignorant answer and accidentally harm a relationship.

What about you? How do you handle surfacing assumptions around politeness?

Photo Credit: Michael Dolan cc

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