Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cultural Faux Pas - "The Social Blooper"

I just recalled a day when I was in a social psychology class at U.S.C., and as an ice-breaker, the instructor asked each student in this class (a class of about 40 during my Junior year) to tell a quick story about something that happened to us that was embarrassing.

My story was something innocuous about playing a piano I happened upon on a stage that I thought was empty to find that a group of people sitting discussing something had instantly become my captive audience.  A silly recollection of days passed.

In the psychology class, it became an Asian woman's turn to tell a story; a small, thin girl with a very hard accent.  She proceeded to tell a story about laughing so hard once in her homeland elementary school that she peed in her pants.  The room got silent as she finished, and the professor made a benign comment and moved onto the next person.

The moment was interesting because every American automatically knew what kind of story would be okay to tell, and what wouldn't, but this woman clearly didn't have that local cultural code; not her fault at all of course.

I've often wondered if this was somehow the object of the professor that day.  Maybe each time he did this during the beginning of the school year, one of the students would invariably stray outside of what was culturally appropriate, and the instructor was simply providing a natural setting in which to illustrate this.  The professor never indicated that he meant for this to happen in any way. 

The memory of the episode has popped into my mind quite a few times in my life making me wonder what has been transparent to others while I've been completely unaware.