"What was your biggest culture shock going to the United States?" is a question that was posed via the website, Quora. The question is a valuable one to help us reflect on the sometimes invisible norms that make us who we are. Some excerpts are included below to show some of the varying perspectives by country:
Here are some of the comments and you can check out the full discussion here:
"It was a shock to me about how fond (almost) everyone here is about working out. People here have such amazing bodies, to be honest. I was even more impressed to see the older people run on the roads. This got ME motivated to start working out. I ran my first race - The Canal run last year, here in the US! Thankyou America."
"I couldn't believe how many of my friends here, who are young undergrads and graduate students, have loans of thousands of dollars from an undergraduate education. Education is pretty affordable in my country."
"I wasn't too fond of sarcasm till I got here. I am used to it now because sarcasm is just a culture thing here."
"The number of women in public places is equal to the number of men! Women in India simply don't emerge from the confines of their safe spaces (houses, offices, schools). Unless it's to run necessary errands or occasionally to go out and have fun (but always safely ensconced within a group of friends). ... In the USA, women go out for early morning jogs by themselves, women go out to get coffees by themselves and linger in parks, women go out for smoke breaks and dare to loiter in public places. You'll understand how amazing this is if you've ever heard of campaigns like #whyloiter (Why Loiter: A Movement to Reclaim Public Places for Women in South Asia)."
"The American flag is everywhere, everywhere, everywhere:You're never likely to forget which country you're in. I've never been to any country which had their own flag proudly plastered every few feet (except bizarrely, the islands in Thailand, where the Thai flag was similarly ubiquitous). And it wasn't anywhere even close to Independence Day."
"I met several students in U.S. schools that were from other countries, that spoke other languages, had other religions and belonged to different cultures. I never did so in Mexico. Everyone that I met there was mostly a regular Mexican catholic. During a High School trip to Disney world, I was shocked to see people all over the world and how many diverse people I met."
"It appears that a significant portion of the population is pretty bad when it comes to geography, unless I just had the misfortune of meeting most of these people. I'm not at all surprised when people say that they don't know where Sri Lanka is. I mean really, we're barely visible on a world map. But when I point it out on a map, they still ask me "So what kind of an Indian are you?" that's when I walk away."
"I lived in a joint family in Mumbai and I still live with my family here in States and cannot even imagine my life without them, whereas in America people only meet their family during Easter or some other festivals which was quite shocking. I remember an incident where my colleague told me he had a family get together for Thanksgiving and 7 people were coming to his house for dinner that night and I started laughing when he exaggerated the word seven and told him how I lived with 9 people in Mumbai for 19 years of my life and loved every second on of it."
"In Korea the professor is next to the king. In Canada, he/she is just a prof, but still treated with some deference. In the states, it's hey doc, and often first name basis.... Americans make a point of treating people in authority as equals..."
"In China, most people enjoy strolling on street as a hobby, not just in parks or shopping centers. While in US, it seems strange to do so. A relative of mine who lived in a pretty good neighborhood in US still enjoyed walking here, and cars would often stop and people asking him if he need any help."
"I'm from Austria and we have "Kaffeehäuser" (literally, coffee houses, or, if you prefer the French word, cafés). There are many options to have in terms of coffee but the coffee itself is usually quite strong (unless you specifically order a de-caff) but without much frills. There is also a culture associated with cafés, that is totally different to the any coffee shop I have been to in the US. American coffee was so weak and watery, barely undrinkable (especially in diners). Coffee shops seemed more like places where people whisked through to get some frilly concoction but not like we would use a café in Austria, where it's a place to meet, read the paper, study, etc."
Some of the more disturbing reporting of the death of L’Wren Scott, the fashion designer found dead in her New York home after what a city coroner has ruled was suicide, seemed intent on suggesting explanations. The media, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
“I am still struggling to understand how my lover and best friend could end her life in this tragic way,” read a statement by her partner, Mick Jagger, which hardly required elaboration. There is nothing logical about suicide, the epitome of crisis and despair, which rarely has anything as clear or compelling as a reason. Suicide is always to some extent a mystery.
That didn’t stop a surge of speculation in the international press, which unsurprisingly ran against every good guideline for the reporting of suicide or personal grief. The contentious phrase “committed suicide” reappeared, a vestige from the days before suicide was decriminalised and a reminder of a time when suicides were buried at night at crossroads with stakes driven through their hearts.
The National Organisation for Suicide Prevention and the Samaritans discourage the reporting of details of suicide (the methods, the so-called hot spots), the use of simplistic explanations (Scott “planned to close her fashion business”, “was devastated she didn’t have kids”) and even the sensational reporting of grief (“Moment Jagger was told of lover’s suicide”) – all of which we got and all of which have serious consequences. One uncomfortable truth about widely reported suicides, especially those of celebrities, is that they are often accompanied by spikes in the suicide rate.
Giving suicide a narrative – a cause and effect, details and despair – tries to make meaning of the unfathomable. Turning a suicide into a story can be dangerous.
Could art be in a better position to talk about suicide? Last month the Irish Times Irish Theatre Award for best production went to Lippy , an unsettling experimental performance inspired by the suicide pact of four women in Leixlip in 2000. Frances Mulrooney, who was 83, and her three adult nieces had barricaded themselves in their home, shredded every personal document, put on matching nightdresses and, over the course of 36 days, slowly and painfully starved themselves to death.
The circumstances of their deaths had already been well scrutinised, by coroner’s reports and legal verdicts, newspaper think pieces and television documentaries. Was it symptomatic of isolation in the modern world? Did a suicide pact in the Co Kildare town, home of Intel and Hewlett-Packard, signify a lack of communication in the heart of the communications industry? Did the women’s spiritual delusions suggest religion was no longer a useful framework for life? Meanings had already rushed in to fill a vacuum and explain away its horror.
Dead Centre’s production of Lippy instead honoured the event as essentially meaningless, constructing a circuitous narrative around a lip-reader hired to interpret the last public conversation between two of the women, caught on CCTV (an invention by the play’s writer Bush Moukarzel). Instead of shedding light on the whys and wherefores, the lip-reader is drawn into a surreal version of the Leixlip home and subsumed into a mystery that shudders the soul. There is no explanation, no glamorisation, just desolation. Lippy was hardly a piece designed to create awareness of a societal problem, but it treated suicide with respect, as something unsolvable.
The Samaritans have guidelines for the dramatisation of suicide, too: if the viewer can identify with the character, imitation is increased; if the method is depicted, chances of copycat suicides rise; if the suicide is eulogised and leads to positive outcomes, such as a family being reunited, the effect can also be dangerous.
You can follow those recommendations to extremes: Romeo and Juliet, for example, are a deeply sympathetic couple whose romanticised suicides end an ancient feud. And artists have long been grimly flippant about suicide: “What about hanging ourselves?” wonders Estragon in Waiting for Godot . “Hmm. It’d give us an erection,” replies Vladimir. The horror of the gesture is cooled by Beckett’s absurdity: what these two men will do for kicks.
In contrast, the use of suicide as a plot device, however sombre, can seem more exploitative. Stones in his Pockets , Marie Jones’s comic play about a Hollywood film being made in rural Kerry, even takes its title from the suicide of a minor character, a drug addict who is rejected and humiliated by a starlet. It brings gravitas to something that would otherwise remain gossamer, but it hardly conveys genuine despair.
A better example might be Michael West’s Conservatory , playing at the Peacock Theatre, which treads a sophisticated line between reality and abstraction, featuring details of a suicide without trying to parse it. The play gives a character’s suicide a circumstance and a consequence but denies it a reason. Last week, after an apparent drop in suicides, an Oireachtas health committee found no evidence to suggest under-reporting. (A letter in these pages from Prof Kevin Malone cast doubts on the methodology.) When journalism is in perpetual danger of over-reporting the details, art may be of more service in asking questions and tactfully drawing blanks.
Fintan O’Toole is on leave