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What - you've never seen Seinfeld?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
What do Seinfeld and the Mishnah have in common?
What do Seinfeld and the Mishnah have in common?
The Jewish oral tradition: six generations of "yeah, but" preserved in typographical rings of disagreement
The Jewish oral tradition: six generations of "yeah, but" preserved in typographical rings of disagreement
Six generations of collaborative thought typographically expressed
Six generations of collaborative thought typographically expressed
The Rabbi's Cat: "Western thought works by thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Jewish thought works by thesis, antithesis, antithesis, antithesis..."
The Rabbi's Cat: "Western thought works by thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Jewish thought works by thesis, antithesis, antithesis, antithesis..."

There is no Jewish conspiracy to control the banks. You know why? Because we can't agree on a place to go for dinner! We couldn't even get the meeting started! (in an authoritative voice) "All right, the Jewish meeting to control the banks will now commence." (in a grouchy voice) "Hey, who died and made you king? Never mind me. I'm no one here. I have no opinions."


"Sure we all have egos to some degree, save for severe psychological problems, but sometimes you just may not feel like being self centered, or ethnocentric or nationalistic. Sometimes you may just feel like cracking a joke that says, "Ha! Take That, Me!" or "Take that, Us!" This is the essence of self-deprecation." a culture founded on centuries of debate, opinions expressed do not garner an obligation to agree.

Quite the opposite; much like 'sweeping the ice' I wrote about in an earlier post, stating opinions invites a response of replying with your own opinion, whether it's the same or different. The verbal game is to build an idea together, through debate that never resolves itself but takes pleasure in the process.

With this basic framework of interest in one another's thoughts, and no inherent pressure towards agreement, there is more freedom to say what you think and hear what I think without anyone feeling obliged to all think the same thing.




* * *

so, I've noticed a scenario recently that has got me pondering the deep differences in world views and values represented by what makes us laugh. My hilarity can be someone else's offence, and vice versa. 

I recently pissed off a friend who had profoundly misunderstood my sense of humour and taken offence at it. I laugh at myself a lot, and she has a habit of hearing my humour not as ironic mockery of myself, but instead as malicious criticism of her or others in the room. So far we haven't been able to come to a shared understanding about this situation. when I've explained that I am genuinely not laughing at her, and am actually laughing at myself, she has simply refused to believe me. Since she perceives me as making fun of her or other people when I laugh at myself, she has repeatedly told me (sometimes calmly, sometimes not so calmly) that I'm rude and that my way of being in the world is innapropriate and wrong.

Just as in the discussion about interrupting, this experience got me thinking about why some friends get the joke and laugh with me, while this friend misreads the code and projects her own cultural codes onto this practice, and therefore deems laughing at myself to be 'rude' because she repeatedly (mis)perceives it as laughing at her.

The reason we haven't been able to understand each other has at least in part to do with cultural expectations around directness/indirectness, differing assumptions about what agreement and disagreement look like, and assumptions about the expected codes of humour. That got me thinking about cultural difference again, and wondering if I could bridge this sociolinguistic divide.


Caveat: 'Cultural Practice' 

When I describe something (like humour) as informed by cultural practices, I'm definitely not saying that all members of a social group will all share a habit or practice. Culture, if we are to describe it at all,  can only really be described in general terms because it is by its very nature a set of group practices that apply loosely to groups of people, who are always more diverse and nuanced than any simple theory of group identity can fully express.

For instance, I can say that "Canadians say sorry a lot" and many of us will laugh and recognize ourselves, recognize the familiar situation in which someone steps on your foot and you apologize. That doesn't mean you need to do this in order to be Canadian, or that all Canadians do this; nonetheless, saying "sorry" many times as we go about our daily business is a cultural practice, a trend or tendency within this identity of "Canadian."

Many within a given culture may not share its most common habits or trends, and many factors shape how culture is expressed by specific people - class, geography, gender, etc. Culture is always nuanced and hybrid. However, that nuance is not grounds to dismiss the concept of cultural practice out of hand.  The multiple influences that make up who we are are more complex than any general description could ever account for, and that's fine. 

*  *  *

He had the kind of face only a mother could love, if that mother was blind in one eye and had that kind of milky film over the other...but still, he was my identical twin.

—Colin Mochrie, Whose Line Is It Anyway?
*  *  *

I prefer to celebrate, enjoy, and ponder difference of cultural practice, in all it's nuances when possible, rather than fear or gloss over it. So for clarity's sake, I do not mean to assume that cultural practices apply in the same ways to every single person who identifies with the culture - particularly given the 'internal' diversity of any cultural group, and the fluid boundaries of group identification.

At the same time, pretending that cultural difference does not exist or ignoring culturally-inflected difference risks a false homogeneity that throws, I believe, the "richness of human diversity" baby out with the "risk of oversimplification" bathwater. We can get along and like each other without having to be 'all the same'.

So I find it useful to describe cultural practices as general trends (rather than hard-and-fast rules or yardsticks of identity) that tend to be practiced to varying extents by many people who share a given culture. These practices change over time and are always blends of inherited practices and present social realities. When it comes to identity, we are all hybrid, all mutts in the end.


*  *  *

so. humour.

Some aspects of humour are just personal - everyone's particular or idiosyncratic vision of the world shapes what we each find funny. some aspects of humour are also culturally-specific, the same way what time people like to eat dinner, length of eye contact, how close to stand to each other, or the meaning of gestures can be culturally-specific.

How a listener interprets a joke depends on context, taboos and values, cultural knowledge  that may or may not be shared. Assumptions about how we communicate with each other, like all forms of communication, are deeply informed by  cultural or group habits.

Humour, assumptions about what constitutes acceptable debate, about styles of criticism, and about directness and indirectness are the influential codes that set the foundation for this kind of conflict I'm trying to understand.

Just as with the blog entry on interrupting/speech patterns, what I'm interested in is teasing out the ways conflict can be understood and hopefully avoided, when one person's humour is another person's offence.

How much is humour culturally-specific, i.e. dependent on knowing a context, a set of assumptions, an unspoken code of conduct? How much of this type of conflict can be avoided by learning to read one another's cultural codes?


So when trying to figure something out, I start where all reliable researchers start. (oh, there's that self-mockery again...)


*  *  *

Wikipedia says:

In the tradition of the legal arguments of the Talmud, one prominent type of Jewish humour involves clever, often legalistic, solutions to Talmudic problems.  (For instance, Orthodox Jews are not allowed to 'carry' outside on Shabbat - including purses or babies - since carrying entails 'work'. So religious jews sometimes put a string around the entire front yard, so that the yard becomes "inside the house" - getting around the rule.) Humour arose around this practice, such as:

Q: Is one permitted to ride in an airplane on the Sabbath?
A: Yes, as long as your seat belt remains fastened. In this case, it is considered that you are not riding, you are wearing the plane.


*  *  *


I can't speak for everyone here, but my own humour and that I've seen in my family is all about appreciating life's profound absurdity together. We laugh together at absurd and ironic situations, in a way that is often collaboratively self-deprecating and cooperative - we laugh *together* at ourselves.

I also don't know how widespread this is, but a few things are either considered totally innapropriate in my family, or just would never occur to me as funny: malicious humour at another family member's expense simply wasn't how things worked at home when I was growing up.

Humour at the expense of loved ones is considered a serious faux pas on two levels: one, at the level of the humour itself, malicious teasing is too easy, and is thus not a respected genre in a setting in which deeply (maybe cosmically) ironic humour is cultivated and noticed. See Seinfeld for an example of this kind of culture that cultivates collaborative ironic mockery of absurd, ironic, or hypocritical situations.

Two, at the ethical level, malicious teasing at the expense of family members was recognized to cause harm, and thus was treated in the same general category as hitting my siblings - simply not done, ever. Lame and violent. Boring and innapropriate. That about sums up the attitude towards malicious teasing of family.

Having seen this kind of humour on TV (after years of watching The Simpsons, for instance), I remember trying it out a few times, and receiving very clear messages that not only was lauging at the expense of other family members considered a low, dumb genre of humour, it was also not welcome, at all, ever.


*  *  *

A Frenchman, a German and a Jew walk into a bar. "I'm tired and thirsty," says the Frenchman. "I must have wine." "I'm tired and thirsty," says the German. "I must have beer." "I'm tired and thirsty," says the Jew. "I must have diabetes."

* * *


 Directness and Indirectness: Criticism

That's not to say that we didn't criticize each other. Criticism in my family (and I will risk guessing this practice is fairly common among ashkenazi jews, and may be more widespread) was generally blunt, frequent, and direct, and could certainly be mean if the speaker was angry. This habit of blunt direct criticism stems, I would guess, from a genuine belief in the old eastern-european side of the family that  repeated direct criticism makes people grow and improve themselves (a belief I have since dropped, a habit I have since worked hard to change).

With all this space to get genuinely bitchy with each other, I don't think it ever occured to anyone to be indirect about criticism or to couch it in humour. Why would you criticize indirectly or in a passive-aggressive way, when everybody is telling everybody else just what they think of them, every day? Criticism, in this setting, is a serious business, not something to joke about - and humour is not supposed to hurt those you love. Competition and status are garnered over who can be more witty and quick at making people laugh, who has the most astute sense of cosmic absurdity - not at who can come up with the best put-down.

So, while blunt straightforward criticism was - is - common fare, laughter is always cooperative, us laughing together at something. We can make fun of ourselves - point out something ironic or hypocritical in our own behaviour and invite others to share in the joke. And we can include others in the self-mockery, making fun of something we've both/all done - but always collectively, laughing at something we we're collectively doing that is ironic, contradictory, or absurd.


I would be reaching if I suggested I knew the reason why this was the case. I could guess at causes - maybe the experience of genocide forged a certain kind of humour, an unwillingness to harm those in your in-group - if you recognize that you're harming them - or an awareness of life's deeper ironies.

Maybe bonding in the face of adversity happens when you laugh at yourselves together rather than laughing maliciously at each other. Maybe there's something about being so darn textual and literary. I really couldn't say.

I just know that this was the kind of humour I was raised with: irony, absurdity, and collective laughing at ourselves - in an inclusive, collaborative kind of self-mockery, or, in another genre, a kind of gallows humour that finds the irony in life's pain and violence. These codes of humour - laughing together at absurdity and cosmic irony - are what filled my house with scales of laughter during my childhood and what I enjoy most about family gatherings today.

Maybe a way to survive in your spirit when all hell breaks loose around you is to develop a collaborative gallows humour,  a strange collective joy in the cosmic irony that mocks the world that seeks to harm you.

*   *   *

The American Jewish community have been lamenting the rate of assimilation and disappearance of their children as they grow into adults.

                   Two Rabbis were discussing their problems with squirrels in their synagogue attic. One Rabbi said they simply called an exterminator and they never saw the squirrels again. The other Rabbi said, "We just gave them all a bar mitzvah, and never saw the squirrels again.


*  *  *


For people who grew up in settings  (there's Anglo-Canadian culture again) in which criticism is expected to be indirect, in which people are expected to agree about things in order to "keep the peace," and in which humour can be potentially  structured around malicious put-downs at the expense of others - including friends and family - words get coded differently.


*  *  *


Directness and Indirectness: Modes of Agreement and Disagreement

When I want to inquire about someone's opinion about soup we are cooking, I would say:

"the soup needs more pepper," and then wait for a response (yes, no, maybe).

Now, when I say this construction to people from  the dominant culture of southern Ontario, Manitoba, Vancouver Island, or places in between, I've learned that a safe bet to avoid offence is to translate that sentence into its direct correlative in Dominant-Canadian English, which would go something like:


"I don't know what you think, let me know if you agree, it seems to me that maybe, do you suppose, does the soup need more pepper? Or maybe not, what do you think?"


strange as it may sound, these two constructions mean exactly the same thing, in different social contexts. Each is completely innapropriate for the other context, because of surrounding invisible assumptions that go without saying.


The need to voice all that extra padding obliterates the implicit trust that I bring to every conversation, that all our words, however firmly expressed, are only partial movements towards an understanding we are building together. When speech is expected to be collaborative rather than competitive, expressions of opinion are not taken as firm final positions, but simply as one piece of a larger collaborative thought.


* * *


Since leaving Montreal, and running into these kinds of linguistic situations, I have done a lot of work not to take offence when someone speaks to me indirectly in a situation in which I would be more direct. For instance, some people in my life like to formulate requests as questions or indirect comments.

In fact, people who use this indirect mode of speech might phrase a strong need or important request in the form of a question rather than a request. My old housemate and I often had these communication glitches, because she'd say, "do you think you should use the squash in the fridge?" which, translated into my speech style, means, "I really want you to use that squash before it goes bad!" It took me years to a) learn that her apparent information-questions were actually requests, and b) to learn not to get offended by this apparent (to me) rudeness.

More elaborately, to avoid stating any opinion in a competitive speech context, indirect speakers tack on all kinds of roundabout phrases, creating constructions such as: "I don't know what you think; it seems perhaps to me, tell me if you agree, that perhaps - does the soup need more pepper? Maybe? Or maybe not - what do you think?"

This indirect, and (to my ear) roundabout style initially was quite offensive to me (once I figured out that they weren't actually asking a question but were simply stating on opinion). It has taken me time to unlearn an ear that hears this style as insulting. The extra padding seems rude to me because it suggests that the speaker does not automatically respect my autonomy or value diverse opinions - in other words, the situation of something as simple as pepper in soup is somehow so sensitive that we have to dance around it, as though I or the other person is too fragile to have an easy open debate.


Assumptions about Goals: Collaborative vs Competitive Speech

It also situates the conversation as a power struggle or competition - your way or mine, and only one of us can be right in the end, and it matters who was right. Non-interleaving speech tends to be more competitive - each waits their turn and tries to be 'right' or say something worthwhile while they've got the stage.

Whereas my approach to language - and interleaving-cooperative speech in general - is more collaborative to begin with. What matters is that we built an idea or outcome together using pieces of both of our opinions.

There's no need, or expectation, to tack on modifiers to indicate an acceptance of diverse opinions, because the goal of conversation is to hear out all the opinions in the room and come to some shared knowledge together using all our wits to build a shared thought.

Tacking on the extra modifiers, within collaborative speech expectations, turns the game from that collaborative hockey drill where we're on the same team, into a competitive tennis game where we're taking turns and each trying to be right.

Much like 'sweeping the ice' I wrote about in an earlier post, in collaborative speech styles, stating opinions invites a response of replying with your own opinion, whether it's the same or different.

With this basic framework of interest in one another's thoughts, and no inherent pressure towards agreement, there is more freedom to say what you think and hear what I think without anyone feeling obliged to all think the same thing. We all want to think together and learn and form ideas collaboratively, and no one opinion is taken as a finished or complete thought.

I suppose the main reason is that in a culture founded on centuries of open-ended freewheeling debate, opinions expressed do not garner an obligation to agree, but rather assume an implicit cooperative interest in multiple opinions as a basic premise. Ideas shared are all assumed to be partial.


*  *  *

Collaborative Disagreeement: Cultural and Religious Roots

Interestingly, there is a parallel to this practice in the Jewish oral tradition of biblical interpretation. One of the most important records of the Jewish oral tradition, the Mishnah, is typographically laid out with interpretations of scripture at the centre of each page, ringed around by circles of commentaries and debates over six generations of rabbinical disagreement. I've attached an image to give you a sense of what a page of the Mishnah looks like.


And here is what that trusted source, Wikipedia, has to say about it:

Rabbinical Judaism holds that written Torah exists in parallel with an oral tradition, and that both of these were given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Jewish law and custom—referred to as Halakhah—is based not only on a literal reading of the Torah, but on the combined oral and written traditions.

Interestingly, the Mishnah intentionally preserved contrasting, often diametrically opposed rabbinical opinions of various issues.

For example:

  • "One who recites Shema but doesn't make it audible to his ear has fulfilled his obligation.
Rabbi Yosei says: Has not fulfilled his obligation."
  • "One who recites but does not articulate each letter:
Rabbi Yosei says: Has fulfilled his obligation.
Rabbi Yehuda says: Has not fulfilled his obligation."

Thus, it takes the position that revealed truth can sometimes exist dialectically, and that members of the believing community can remain united despite opposing views of matters of both theology and practice. This attitude has enabled Judaism to avoid permanent schisms for the most part, in contrast to the Christian tendency to more easily condemn divergent theological views as heresy. 


*  *  *

Two Rabbis argued late into the night about the existence of God, and, using strong arguments from the scriptures, ended up indisputably disproving His existence. The next day, one Rabbi was surprised to see the other walking into the Shul for morning services.

"I thought we had agreed there was no God," he said.

"Yes, what does that have to do with it?" replied the other.

* * *


Directness and Indirectness: Stating the subject

Along with this assumption that differing opinions are welcome comes an expectationn for precise direct language. For instance, it would never occur to me to say a sentence formed around the word "I" when I was really talking about someone else.

If I was talking about you, I would say "you." If I were talking about a third person in the room, I would say that person's name or use some pronoun that indicates them ("he," "she,"  "it," or any number of other pronouns come in handy). If I use the word "I," then I am talking about myself.

For whatever reason, I was raised to place a very high value on precision in speech, on using the most accurate word; to value sincerity above propriety; to speak in a direct manner; and cocomitantly, to respect, invite, and be very comfortable with expressions of diverse opinions.

Until I discovered this cultural practice of "polite indirectness" in my early twenties, I may not have known anyone who spoke this way. Only when I was attending university in a town in Southern Ontario did I first encounter this speech style, and it left me baffled - as though people were saying unintelligible things - until a generous Ontarian finally explained it to me.


Until I learned to decode it, I found it immensely puzzling. At first, living in a small city in Southern Ontario, I found many situations unintelligible; why were people saying "I" when they really meant someone else? I remember my bewilderment, thinking, what a confusing way to speak! What purpose could this possibly serve? How do you tell when someone really means "I" and when they mean "you" or "that jerk in the corner"?


Eventually I adjusted and learned - more or less -  to switch back and forth between the codes around me - the one that values directness, precision, and sincerity as forms of politeness/respect, and the one that values indirectness, hints and suggestions as forms of politeness/respect. I may not be entirely fluent, but I can manage in this indirect setting when I need to, for short periods of time.

At the very least I have learned enough so as not to judge people who speak this way, and to respect their cultural codes as just as valid as my own. But when I interpret the speech of others who speak in this way, it's always a second language, a step removed cognitively from the verbal codes and emphasis I was raised with.

As a result, much like in the situation I described of Tennis vs. Curling, when people use this kind of indirect language with me, I  still sometimes misunderstand their meaning - for instance, people have criticized me using "I" statements that I have mistaken for criticism of themselves, only to be told later that I was being critiqued indirectly and missed the cue. 

And on several occasions, I've come into conflict with people who have applied the dominant anglo-Canadian culture's indirect code to my much more direct style of speech, which tangles up the communication using a Rosetta Stone that simply doesn't apply. It's decoding a speech act that hasn't been encoded.


This causes all sorts of trouble. A recent scenario to illustrate...

For context: I hate clothes shopping. Everyone who knows me knows that my patience for shopping is about fifteen minutes, after which I run screaming out of the store. If I can get out of having to shop for clothes, I will. This, of course, means that I don't usually bother all that much with how I dress, and don't really care. I also really love good food and tend to blow too much money eating out regardless of how much money I have available. My total aversion to shopping and fashion is a kind of running joke among my old friends. Cue scenario:

location: we're at an academic conference reception,a group of PhD students standing around in a circle making light-hearted conversation with glasses of wine in our hands. Conversation turns to the job mill and future prospects in our field.

Friend A: I'm tired of being a grad student. I want a real job.

Friend B: Yeah, I don't want to run out of money again when the grants end. We've eaten macaroni and cheese too often.

Me (grinning): Yeah, I know. At least, though, when I'm broke I can just stop buying clothes. (laugh) Then I have more money to waste on food.

Friend B freezes, walks away.

Some time later:

Friend B: (angry)  "I didn't appreciate your comment earlier,"

Me (concerned): which comment?

Friend B: about how if I don't have money I should just shop less.

Me: What? When did I say that?

Friend B: I was talking about actually being poor, which I don't think you understand. 

Me: (alarmed) I'm so sorry. It's a simple misunderstanding: I wasn't talking about you.

Friend B: well, it sounded really clear to me that you were criticizing me for how I spend money, and telling me that I shop too much.

Me: I'm so sorry that hurt your feelings, but it was a misunderstanding. I don't talk about other people using "I" sentences. If thought you shopped to much, I would said "you shop too much." I don't even know or care how much you shop! How could I possibly have an opinion about that?

Friend B: well, it just looked really obvious that you were giving me advice, saying that if I don't have money I should just shop less.


We went round and round this several times, and she simply refused to believe me. 


Due to many of these kinds of encounters with this particular friend, this conflict has since escalated.

Categorically refusing to believe that any other speech style might even exist, Friend B has since stopped speaking to me and has spread rumours about me among our colleagues. 

There hasn't been space to reach each other across this divide, to value the different ways we speak and the different assumptions we make about verbal codes.

In this case, what I was laughing at  - collaboratively, since we were all in the same situation, advanced grad students living on teaching stipends and wondering whether we'd have enough work -  was the way the drug of choice may change, but many of us have something we comfort ourselves with even when we can't afford it - in my case, food.

The humour - laughing at human foibles and a certain gallows humour in the face of our mutual potential impending joblessness- was lost in translation, even though we were both speaking the same language.



Basic Assumptions about Social Codes underly 'getting' the joke

She assumed I was doing something that in the cultural world I was raised in, is completely taboo in two ways: 

1. criticizing indirectly rather than directly

2. making malicious fun of a friend

(let alone having an opinion about someone else's shopping habits. Why would I care how much someone else shops? That would entail thinking about shopping, something I don't like to do...)



Why is indirect criticism taboo or unthinkably rude for me? Since I've run into this kind of scenario, I've had to grapple with this question, and have started to consciously think about something I once took entirely for granted.

The assumption in collaborative speech, I think, is that if you respect someone, you speak to them directly, because directness shows faith in the other person's autonomy and intelligence. At its best, in this collaborative speech style, everyone's opinions are valued and respected as a matter of course, even when you strongly disagree with one another, because all thought is partial and collaborative. I have read another framework for this distinction, Low Context and High Context communication, and find it fits. 

I'm not saying that collaborative speech always works, or that it's the only good way to interact. Other social dynamics (notably gender) do come into play and cause conflict. But at its best, directness = politeness is a basic assumption of enjoyable shared speech in my world. 

Indirectness, in a collaborative interleaving speech style, on the other hand, may be viewed as a kind of dishonesty, and thus as disrespectful partly because it is a sort of deceit, and partly because it assumes a) competition between who is more 'right' (an approach that is itself offensive within the collaborative style) and b) that the speakers do not respect each other's autonomy and intelligence.



A foundational cultural difference?

My secular cultural tradition grows out of a centuries-old culture of openness to (even celebration of) differences of opinion and interpretation. It's quite plausible what was initially a religious practice - of debate taking place over centuries, and of the joy of sharing ideas and collaboratively building understanding in this way - translates into some social contexts of secular Jewish culture. This isn't universally the case; 'Jew' is an internally diverse identity with many subcultures. However, I believe this is particularly true of the Jewish communities of Montreal and New York. 

When I was younger, I spent hours in heated debates with friends, honing our wits together.

When I had all the energy in the world - as a teenager or undergrad - there was nothing I loved more than to debate with the people I loved and respected, whether over stupid random inane details like how many legs a daddy-long-legs has (that debate lasted over two hours with much laughter), or important ideas such as whether such a thing exists as universal morally right behaviour, or what constituted Canadian identity.


What constitutes acceptable debate?

I loved then, and still do, if to a lesser and calmer extent, to learn by arguing. If someone can convince someone else or at least open their mind to another possible way of thinking, then I'm happy - whether it's me or the other person who is convinced.

The conversation is only a 'failure' if someone starts to take it personally, or if no one learns anything in the end.

Since my ancestors spent several centuries establishing a religious tradition using exactly this method - and prevented major schisms in the religion as a result - I'm going to go out on another limb and say that it's a perfectly good system, even if it's not everyone's cup of borscht.


So what does all this have to do with prejudice?

Misunderstandings happen. We can expect them. When they arise, people's reactions can go a few ways.

If, after trying to understand each other, people assume that there is only one social code for appropriate behaviour, just as in the example of the Tennis game for speech, and if even after hearing out the actual cultural difference at play, someone refuses to "believe" that it's possible to have another set of expectations or codes for appropriateness, that refusal is an example of genuine prejudice.

"My culture's way is the only right, universal, and normal way, and your way offends me, therefore it is obviously inherently rude."

It's not necessarily  "oppression," in the sense that it's not institutional or enforced by large social structures such as the law, the education system, etc. Currently, in North America, no one is going to shoot me in the head, stop Jews from graduating from McGill, tell me to sit in the back of the bus, or gas my family, because they don't like my directness or my collaborative speech style.

Very rarely, when someone with more power or authority imposes this prejudice, is it actually something like 'racism'. Being passed over for work because an interviewer perceived your attempt at a polite cooperative speech style as 'rude' may be an example. But these situations are few and far between, and are far from structural. It's not 'oppression.' It's just really uncomfortable prejudice, and causes unneccessary conflict that could be resolved with a little more willingness, acceptance, and awareness.

On a one-to-one, interpersonal level, if - even after hearing each other out - people believe that their cultural practices are the only appropriate ones, and judge based on this limited scope for 'appropriateness', that's prejudice. It is the pre-judging of another cultural practice based on the norms of one's own. It can happen between friends and between people who are otherwise in similiar social positions with similar degrees of power. (Unlike 'Racism,' which is prejudice plus the power to enforce it).

The stereotype of Jews - particularly New York and Montreal Jews, and *particularly* Jewish women - as 'rude' and 'pushy' is largely based on this applying one set of social codes to another culture in which different codes apply.

In this case, one is an indirect code in which the goals of speech are competitive, agreement is expected in order to keep the peace, and in which disagreement garners serious conflict; the other is a culture that places more emphasis on collaborative speech, verbal precision, and exploration of diverse opinions, and in which directness, 'talking together,' assuming the emotional strength/durability of your listener, and sincerity are more highly valued as signs of respect.

* * *

I am aware that some view 'prejudice' as a very strong word. To be clear here, I don't mean 'hatred' or 'racism' or 'antisemitism'. If you can propose a more appropriate word, I'm all ears.

What I mean by 'prejudice' is the assumption that one set of practices is the only 'real' or 'good' one, and the unwillingness to learn other cultural codes.

It's as though you've said, "it's ok for you to have a different name or skin colour than me, as long as you *behave* like me." "It's ok for you to look different from me, so long as you don't behave differently."

But of course, culture isn't just about skin colour, name, or language. We aren't, and shouldn't be expected to behave, "all the same." We are all quite different, in important ways - humour, body language, cultural norms - and hopefully can *remain* different while still getting along. If you're ok with my name and my nose but not ok with my speech style, we're still dealing with prejudice - even if you don't realize my speech style is as much a normal part of me as my nose.

Prejudice isn't always named as such (again, feel free to suggest a better word if you like). To use a parallel example, men who fully respect women and certainly aren't 'sexist' may still take more seriously a human being who is tall and broad and speaks in a deep voice. That's not 'sexist' (right?) - it's just that taller people with deeper voices inspire more confidence.

My student who said it was just obviously "rude" when he saw two older Asian women speaking in (what he understood as) high volume to each other on the bus wasn't 'racist against Asians' - he just firmly believes that there is one universal appropriate volume for bus speech and that this volume was 'rude'. A white person speaking in that volume he would think was "equally rude." The thing is, perhaps he's been unwilling to learn whose cultural norms set the 'normal' volume for bus conversation in a Canadian city - and to learn if there are other cultural norms that are just as valid.

The British woman in a store in Jerusalem's arab quarter who confided to my father that she can't countenance haggling over prices - and won't sell to people who do it - does not perceive herself as 'racist towards Arabs'. She is perfectly ok with Arabs as long as they understand how universally and obviously 'rude' it is to haggle. Anyone who haggles, white, Arab, or anything else, is 'obviously rude' - but not because of their skin colour or name, just because of breaching 'obvious' universal standards for social behaviour. Except that they're not 'universal' - they're hers, and she refuses to acknowledge or recognize other social codes.

The Canadians who say they're fine with women being Muslim so long as they don't cover their hair or faces, becuase hijab is 'obviously' a sign of being oppressed by your husband, are not 'racist' against Muslims - they just "know" that the hijab is a sign of being oppressed and can't countenance it even in women who choose to wear it. "I'd be ok with your name, language, skin colour, and religion so long as you behave just like me."

Clearly prejudice is not always understood or named as such. "I'm not prejudiced against Jews, some of whose cultural norms require interleaving speech as a sign of listening - I just 'know' it is 'universally' rude to speak before someone else has finished speaking."


Responding to Misunderstanding: the moment of truth

Now, of course, misunderstandings are part of life and are bound to happen. In the moment right after a misunderstanding causes offence (the asian women on the bus speak too loudly for your ears; the Arab in the shuk 'dares' to haggle over a price; the jew speaks over you or laughs at something you don't understand; the woman speaks in her high voice that you - without thinking - don't take as seriously as a deep male voice; or in other ways, when the people you are interacting with laugh, speak, or move their bodies, hands and faces in ways that you don't move) in that moment after a misunderstanding causes offence, do you slow down and take the time to find out if your assumptions about 'rudeness' match the actual social situation?

Or do you insist that your rules are the only rules, and that everyone else needs to conform to your social codes?

How much more rich and full will your life be if you can ask questions and learn another way of behaving and perceiving, rather than write off others because their behavior is different from what you are used to? 

And if someone takes the risk and time to point out to you that you may be making "prejudiced" assumptions about them... how do you respond?

It's likely that if one person points it out to you, many others have experienced it without telling you. Do you find this sharing 'rude' as well and take out your additional anger on the person who shared this insight with you? Or do you welcome it as an opportunity to learn and thank the person who shared the observation, for taking the risk to tell you instead of just being quiety uncomfortable?




 The graphic novel The Rabbi's Cat illustrates nicely.

The cat eats the parrot, and learns how to speak.

The first thing it does is lie: "What parrot?"  as green feathers jut out of its mouth.

The rabbi tries to teach the cat to be a good Jewish cat, therefore to speak honestly. Several pages of debate ensue in which the rabbi quotes Jewish law, while the cat quotes continental philosophy. Each frame shows one of their points as they argue back and forth. Finally the rabbi explains the crucial difference between Jewish and Western philosophical traditions, explaining to the cat that:

"Western thought works by thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Jewish thought works by thesis, antithesis, antithesis, antithesis..."


*  *  *

online resources on self-deprecating Jewish humour and gallows humour:

Exploring the thesis of the self-deprecating Jewish sense of humour

The Distinctiveness of American Jewish Humour:

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nora_samaran (Nora Samaran)
Montreal, QC
Member since April 2009


Cultural theorist; PhD in Canadian Literature with a focus on race theory, nationalism, and newspapers; geeking out and/or organizing around all things speculative fiction, independent media, migrant justice & antiracism, radical mental health and social change since 1999. Blogs at

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