Because the tendency to assume everyone shares our core values is universal, the opportunity to be blindsided by a cultural difference in a foreign country lurks right below the surface, like a grinning crocodile.
Recently a friend of mine stepped right into the jaws of one of these cultural differences. She gave me permission to tell her story for the educational value, as long as I don’t embarrass her by name. So let’s call her Trudy.
Trudy thinks of herself as a fairly cosmopolitan, sophisticated woman. She has lived comfortably in several countries, and prides herself on an ability to see things from the other guy’s point of view. She usually recognizes that when she is in Rome, the Romans have it right and her own opinion is that of a foreigner.
Trudy has lived in Panama for several years, has lots of Panamanian friends, and speaks fairly fluent Spanish. Unlike most of her countrymen, she is not troubled by such things as noisy neighbors (it’s the custom), by lack of personal space (it’s the custom) or by lengthy waits in stores for service. (It’s the custom.)
Recently, when she expected house guests, Trudy realized she was one bed short, so she bought a sort of metal cot with a foam mattress.
The vendor, with whom she had done business many times previously, and who she trusted, gently suggested she might like to get something a bit nicer than foam, but Trudy didn’t want to spend the money. In the past, in the US, Trudy had bought several foam mattresses and they had always been quite satisfactory, lasting several years and giving excellent service as guest beds.
But this was Panama, and once again, the vendor gently suggested she might not be happy with the foam. But Trudy had her preconceived ideas and didn’t listen. She bought the foam.
Nearly everything in this particular store came with a guarantee, which was attached as a matter of course to the invoice. Trudy didn’t bother to inquire about the guarantee on the mattress, because, as I said, she trusted the vendor.
So imagine her shock when her guest flattened the foam – literally – in a two week stay.
As soon as her guests were gone, Trudy went rushing back to the vendor. She was completely outraged that such a thing could possibly happen and told him so. Because she knew him to be a totally honest and upright businessman, she was positive the only reason she could have bought defective goods in his store would be the fault of the manufacturer.
This is the part where it gets tricky. Do you see the underlying, assumed to be shared, cultural value here? Since she didn’t, I’ll tell you what the assumed “SHOULD” here is: certain household items are ordinarily used on a long-term basis, and therefore should be expected to hold up for a reasonable period of time. In other words, because in the US one usually buys a mattress with the expectation that it will be good for at least a year or so, that’s what everyone everywhere expects from a mattress. If a mattress doesn’t meet those expectations, the goods are defective. That’s the assumption.
Let us now pull our heads out of our own culture and return to Panama, where Trudy was doing her best to understand this situation, and failing miserably.
Her vendor told her that unfortunately the manufacturer would not honor the guarantee because too much time had passed.
Her jaw dropped. She had bought the foam less than two months previously, and it had only been used for two weeks.
Well, the guarantee was for one month.
“One MONTH?” Trudy was horrified. “On a MATTRESS !!!?”
Yes, that’s right.
Her vendor explained that because the mattress was “so cheap,” it was not expected to hold up longer than that.
Caught in her cultural expectation, Trudy sputtered with outrage. She was unable to process this.
But then the vendor, always gentle, and really wanting her to understand, continued to explain that mattresses like this were sold for Carnaval.
And suddenly the light came on for Trudy.
Carnaval in Las Tablas is a veritable orgy of “temporary.” The decorations for Carnaval cost thousands, and are used once. The fireworks that explode through most of the day and night and cost a fortune each explode only one time. The songs that are sung in the parades are written to be sung that year alone. For that week of the year, the people of Las Tablas shift their way of life. Nearly everyone in town becomes a temporary entrepreneur. They run temporary restaurants, temporary parking lots, temporary bed and breakfasts. Lots of temporary beds.
Lots and lots.
So a mattress that costs $40 and only lasts a month is fine for Carnaval, because the temporary person temporarily sleeping on it might pay as much as $100 per night on a temporary basis. And if the foam flattens, well, you just throw it away and get another one next year.
Realizing this made a great deal of difference to Trudy’s understanding and acceptance of her “defective goods.” Because he is the upright and honest businessman that he is, the vendor made good on the mattress, but Trudy has a new appreciation for how easy it is to project your own values wrongly onto others, no matter how right that projection might seem to be. She has a new appreciation of being “a stranger in a strange land,” and how forgiving her neighbors have been of the mistakes she must have made without ever realizing they were mistakes.
“I have been properly humbled,” she told me. “It’s embarrassing to realize you are just another hot-headed, misguided foreigner. It’s so easy to assume you can see when you are actually completely blind.”