How to be a stranger

When I worked for a summer teaching English one of the first things we had to teach the visiting students, even those at a low level of English, was how and in what situations to say could you please, thank you, you’re welcome, I’m sorry, excuse me, etc. I hated teaching this stuff because it doesn’t make any sense at all according to the rules of grammar; there is no way to explain why “I didn’t understand, please repeat” is rude and one should instead say “I’m sorry I didn’t understand, could you please repeat that?”. The students just have to learn all of it by rote. One of the more experienced teachers explained to me: if they get the grammar or pronunciation wrong, their English host families will probably be able to figure out what they mean and will forgive them in any case, but if they get politeness wrong, they won’t forgive them. And it’s true. When someone is rude to me I don’t even think on a conscious level “they said X instead of Y and therefore they have disrespected me,” I just feel it in my gut. If you asked me about it later I would say the person spoke to me rudely but I wouldn’t remember exactly how.

Of course it’s the same to visitors to any foreign culture. Western visitors to Jordan and Palestine are warned that if you give compliments about a particular piece of clothing or jewelery that your host is wearing, she may insist on giving it to you, so it’s best to praise only immovable objects and children. Westerners living in China are warned that telling guests to make themselves at home is an insult, interpreted as “I can’t be bothered to treat you as a guest”. There is no way for a foreigner to figure these things out, we just have to learn them by rote. And when we are in our home culture we don’t even notice all these odd little rules of politeness, we just react to them at a gut level.

In fact very little of our day to day communications with friends, family, and co-workers etc. would make much sense if you just interpreted the words literally. If you strip away sarcasm and irony, tone of voice, facial expressions, references to TV shows, films, shared experiences, or shared ideas about the world, there isn’t a whole lot left. Even in my own city, I sometimes meet people who I have a hard time understanding because of the lack of shared cultural reference points.

The truth is that those cultural reference points – the things we know so deeply that we don’t know we know them, we just feel them in our gut – are a lot less universal than we think they are, and we frequently get involved in terrible misunderstandings with others because neither person realises they are starting from a reference point, a set of basic unquestioned assumptions, that the other does not share. It’s weird to think about. I’m a native English speaker, but that doesn’t mean I can communicate meaningfully with anyone who speaks English. When I think about it, it’s scary how small the subset of humanity I could have a meaningful conversation with actually is.

People with Aspergers or autism know what it is to be a stranger, even if they’ve never left the town where they were born. They talk about not being able to understand the rules intuitively as most people do, and of having to painstakingly learn all the unspoken social rules by rote, just like the foreign language students I used to teach had to do.

Anytime you have a thought or an idea that’s different or new, you immediately become a stranger. And being a stranger is hard.

I think we need their knowledge of how to be a stranger, how to talk to strangers. How it takes five times as long, how you have to practise and learn, how you need to check your understanding frequently, how you can never just trust that your gut is correct.

It’s hard work, being a stranger. It’s hard work that needs doing. It’s a set of skills we need to learn.