Different Interpretations of Rude Behavior–Intercultural Miscommunication!

(Google photo)

Some parents in our upper-middle-class Middle-Eastern school come in to see teachers and make demands such as, “I want my child moved up to the front row today, and I want him to stay right there for the entire school year!”  When a teacher tries to explain that they have to consider and balance the needs of all the children in the classroom, these parents sometimes reply,  “YOU don’t tell OUR children what to do; we tell YOU what to do, because WE pay your salary by bringing our children to your school!”  How does a teacher even respond to a parent with ideas like this?

As a foreign teacher, each time I had a strange encounter like this with a  haughty and disdainful parent, I wondered about this strange behavior toward teachers and administrative staff.  Whenever one of these encounters took place, I would ask my Middle Eastern assistant why these parents would behave this way.  I was always told, “They behave that way because they are rich.”  It still wasn’t clear to me what being rich would have to do with rude and imperious behavior.  So when I asked how the two things were linked, I always got the response, “They think they can behave that way because they have money.”  This didn’t clarify matters, either.  It was especially not clear since I knew plenty of other people who had even more money and did not behave in that sort of manner at all.

Aisha Gaddafi Libya

Typical “look” of the type of parent who “talks down” to teachers in the Middle East.

I understood my assistant’s words, but still did not understand the behavior, or what his words actually meant.  Ten years later, I believe I now understand–it’s not really about money, but about status.  In every country, many people try to follow and copy what they perceive the rich people doing.

Coco Chanel

For example, let us look briefly at the fashion of suntanning, in Europe and the United States.  In the 1800s, women used to stay out of the sun and even carry a parasol to keep the sun from falling on their skin.  Prior to 1900, those with tanned skin were presumed to be low-class common laborers.  In the 1920s, this perception began to change.

Coco Chanel

When Coco Channel returned from the French Riviera with a suntan, having a suntan (particularly in winter) became associated with having the time and money to vacation in warm places.  By the 1940s, sunbathing and suntans were popular everywhere.

In the Western United States in the 1960s and 1970s, students took great care while skiing to never use suntan cream (in order to purposely come back from skiing with a tan or a sunburn), and to leave the ski-lift tickets attached to one’s jacket all season.   Both of these actions raised one’s status, showing that he or she was someone able to afford to go skiing (an expensive sport).  From the 1960s onward (the age of jet travel) a suntan in winter demonstrated that one was part of the leisure class, able to afford to jet off to a warm destination in winter.

Other countries have other ways of indicating that one is a member of the wealthy, or leisure class.   In some Middle Eastern countries (such as Syria, among others), there is a special system which confers the ultimate status.  The most important people carry special cards in their wallets which place them above the powers of law enforcement officials.  Only members of the most important families are able to obtain this card, and so, are free to act without any repercussions.

Joan Collins playing the haughty and domineering Alexis Carrington on Dynasty.

Therefore, some people in the Middle East (especially the newly rich) perceive that what it means to “act like an upper-class person” is to act very haughty and imperious, as though you can order other people around, and no one can say anything to do no matter how rudely you act, or what acts you commit.   This is what I believe was happening in my school. My conclusion at present is that the parents who behaved in an imperious manner were mostly not well-educated or well-brought up, yet had the fortune through business or inheritance, to come into money.  Buy behaving this way, they are essentially trying to announce to others, “Look!  We are important people, and we are more important than you (the teachers and school employees)!”  So this behavior, in their mind, is a way for them to gain status and prestige, as well as to flaunt it to others.  As a foreign teacher, it seems to me to be greatly lowering their prestige, but people in my local country seem to understand that, “Since they are rich, they feel entitled to act that way.”

This system even affects the behavior of children in school.  Children in our school are often rude to their teachers, and completely uncooperative with regard to class rules (continual talking while the teacher is teaching;  not staying in their chairs; refusing to line up or walk quietly in a line; talking loudly, rather than whispering).  Every new idea works for just a day or two, and then it’s right back to the old behavior.

After teaching in the Middle East for twenty years, I now believe that the reason children are uncooperative is because being cooperative shows that you and your family must have low status.  High-status children behave as they wish, because to do so shows the other children that they come from an “important” family and are “above” having to follow the teacher’s rules.

–Lynne Diligent

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11 Responses to “Different Interpretations of Rude Behavior–Intercultural Miscommunication!”

  1. Judy Says:

    I think in intercultural terms this can be explained in terms of you being from a Low Power Distance society, living in a High Power Distance one. To quote from Anne Copeland and Marissa Lombardi’s book “In Their Own Voice”… “People in high power distance societies accept that inequalities in power and status are natural and inevitable….In these societies, people with power generally try to distinguish themselves from those without it….People in low power distance societies believe that inequalities in power and status, while present in their culture, are to be fought against and squelched whenever possible.”

    I’ve experienced this myself and it makes me deeply uncomfortable, but I also recognize that my preferred egalitarian approach make those from high power distance societies equally unhappy.

    I work in the real estate industry here in Toronto and we have a lot of new immigrant buyers, sellers and real estate agents. Recently I’ve been reading about and hearing a number of grumbles about rude behavior, which on reflection is due to this kind of intercultural misunderstanding.

  2. Abdelmjid Says:

    Fantastic!
    I really loved your article, Lynne.
    I think you approached the issue very cleverly, and you could get to some good explanations and pertinent conclusions.

    I loved how you explained that the parents’ behavior didn’t mean that they did it in order to show how well-off they are, but to try to raise their social status. I think this is a very smart remark. The Middle eastern societies are very hierarchical. Therefore, everybody spends their entire lives working climbing the social ladder to improve their social statuses. For some people, it even becomes an obsession! They not only want to make pat of the elite but to show off and let the whole world KNOW that they belong to that particular social class.

    Well done, again. I enjoyed reading it :)

  3. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Very interesting, Judy! I’ve heard of that book, although not read it, and will definitely add it to my “wish” list on Amazon!

  4. Abdelmjid Says:

    I loved your analysis, Jude. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the problems that emerge between Low Power Distance societies and High Power Distance societies are only misunderstandings. Sometimes, it’s people from the higher social classes trying to exert their power on other people, who clearly are of a lower social class.
    This is very common in countries where there is no middle class.

  5. Abdelmjid Says:

    Sorry Judy for misspelling your name!

  6. Aisha from Expatlogue Says:

    Fascinating article – power, status and money have a lot to answer for.

  7. Adventures (@in_expatland) Says:

    Very interesting article Lynne, thank you. They are keen observations that these parents may be exerting power over supposedly lower class people (as Abdelmijd indicates) and/or attempting to obtain or reinforce social standing as you wrote. I think it’s a good reminder that any time you start to feel that someone (or something) in a different culture starts to irritate you, it helps to step back, take a deep breath and consider how it can often be traced back to minor (sometimes major) clashes between cultures.

  8. J Says:

    Thank you for this. i have had similar experience living and working in diverse cultures such as Thailand but I think that choosing to live in another country is choosing to respect the contry’s deviant culture. sometimes, respect need not be earned. it is given outright to earn mutual respect. although cultural differences can create conflict in the working environment and even in western-thai relationships just like what this article says http://www.thailand-family-law-center.com/?p=173

  9. Alison J Says:

    I loved loved loved this article. Thank you Lynne! I had been an EFL teacher for 16 years, and worked for a Saudi-owned organisation for 2 years. During the final year of that time, I was routinely and regularly bullied (on a daily basis) by a Syrian woman who prided herself on coming from a certain social class, while dsiplaying many of the behaviours you decribe. As you suggest in your article, the way she behaved actually seemed to indicate a lack of what I would term true ‘class’, which has little to do with one’s ancestral pedigree, and everything to do with how one holds oneself and respectfully interacts with others.

    Yours was the only reflection I could find online to help me understand the phenomenon. Although that experience is thankfully behind me now, I wanted to thank you very much for writing with such clarity and insight on an issue which personally affected me a great dea, every day for one whole calendar year.

    Wishing you continued success!

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Thank you so much for responding, Allison. I felt so confused about such behavior for so long and so many years! I’m really glad to know my post helped you, too.

      –Lynne

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