Monday, January 4, 2010

Ongoing cultural challenges

As the pastor's wife nattered away to her friend in the pew in front, oblivious to her husband's zealous exhortations from the pulpit, was I the only one becoming increasingly irritated?

The local baptist church with whom the rescue house has close ties (1a Primeira Igreja Baptista Jardins Imbuais - so good they named it twice) runs a helpful and interesting "sunday school" for adults on Sunday mornings. I had gone the previous week to the seminar on anger (how to prevent it, so-called "righteous" anger, etc - you get the drift. All pithy comments will be deleted, mum). The poor lady trying to deliver her carefully prepared presentation not only had to deal with what must have been three or four pairs of constantly chattering couples animatedly discussing goodnessknowswhat, but also an audience member who was clearly depressed and was anxious to share the news of her recent - multiple - suicide attempts with the room. By the time the two stray dogs entered the room from the back door (which had been left ajar due to the stifling heat), I was so seething that I genuinely thought it may have been some weird test of my own anger threshold. I wasn't angry merely because I couldn't concentrate on what promised to be a fascinating discussion; it was more frustration for the speaker, mixed with embarrassment to be associated with the audience.

After a generous round of laser beam eyes at the culprets (righteous anger? probably not), I was about to start shooshing when the presentation ended (and when I say "ended" I mean the speaker carried on talking while people gradually got up from their chairs and left the room because her allotted time was up). Maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise to me that the exhortation "shhh!" is not part of the Brazilian idiom. I thought that it would be one of the few expressions I would not have to translate to make myself known to the boys, but I was wrong.

o que significa "shooosh"?
[index finger raised to closed lips]

There are certain standards which transcend borders and cultures. There are, for example, what those in the legal profession call, "human rights". Others talk of a "universal morality". Although I believe both are unattainable and somewhat unattractive fallacies, there is (like most fallacies) an element of truth in the concept of standardised - for want of a better word - manners. I am not suggesting that genuine local custom and convention be done away with simply because they may somehow offend my western middle-class sensitivities (whatever those might be), but I do believe that there are certain standards of behaviour which should not be excused. I am saddened when bona fide selfish or stubborn behaviour masquerade as "cultural norms". It is not right and it is not fair to turn up to a team meeting 20 minutes late! It is not "British" punctuality or "Swiss" efficiency that dictate such standards. It is manners, plain and simple.

ooking around the room, however, I also noticed this: nobody was getting their knickers in a twist like I was. I felt convicted and then I felt rather silly.

And then a wider truth dawned upon me.
If I am the only one affronted (even the speaker - onto whom I was vicariously channeling frustration - didn't look in the least bit concerned as the chatter level rose to such a crescendo that she had difficulty making herself heard) then I myself must check my attitude. This is not so much morality by majority, but more a realisation that I should respect what others might not consider to be important. To put it another (less clumsy) way, sometimes one must refuse to be offended and concentrate on more important matters.

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