A little over a year ago I was conducting my first research interview in Sweden. My research there focuses on the way that school principals mange the diversity of their student populations (most schools were at least 50% first or second generation immigrant). One of my first questions – on a list of many questions that I developed in conversation with other (Swedish) researchers working within the project was “What are the different ethnic and immigrant populations in this school?”
If I asked that question in the U.S., I would expect the principal to spout off numbers (or have a sheet they printed in preparation for an interview on the subject of immigrant inclusion) concerning student diversity: languages spoken at home, percentage using ELL services, race and ethnic groups represented, percentage qualifying for free or reduced price lunch and perhaps moving into a discussion of teacher diversity (nationality, bilingualism, language and cultural curricular they implement) and the school’s approach to accommodating student diversity. To be sure, that is the information I was hoping that question would lead to in my interview with a Swedish principal.
Instead, it was as if a cold wind blew through the room. The principal, who had been polite and friendly, suddenly crossed his arms over his chest and pursed his lips. “That,” he said, “is a racist question.”
There are some things you are not supposed to talk about, and there are typical approaches to speaking about things that are difficult to discuss. Of course, those things vary depending on the setting and the people populating it. One of the first things I do when I get to a new place is try to figure out what you are not supposed to say and the manner of talking about things that are difficult to say (what it is easy to say and how is obvious, of course, because those are the things that people are saying and the way they are saying it). But you can’t exactly ask people directly, “What are the subjects I should not discuss and what are the touchy subjects that require a particular approach?” Well, actually, you can ask that question as I have in the past, but if you’ve been paying any attention and done any background research you won’t generally get a useful answer. Local customs around discussing work/family, income, politics, etc, are typical fare in most guidebooks and basic intercultural accounts. What you really need is to know what things are so unquestionably off limits or so obviously only approached in one particular way that folks would not even think to raise the subject or, if they thought of it, they can hardly muster the fortitude to mention such an unmentionable.
So, in my experience, you generally learn either by “stepping in it” or observing the missteps of others. I’ve stepped in it more times than I can count. Breaching social norms is not something I usually pursue intentionally – although I must admit to a couple of times when I have or have been sorely tempted to mess with folks (e.g. there was that time last spring when I could barely contain my desire to find out what might happen if I jumped to the head of a slow-moving line of orderly, silent, infinitely patient, well-spaced Swedish customers at a department store cash register). Instead, I usually stumble into moments in which I have violated social norms and I must rely upon quick wits and the forgiveness of others to recover.
There are also countless times when my own expectations of how to act and what to speak of are not met. My chosen profession, residential mobility within the U.S., class climbing, and international travel have contributed to an accumulation of experiences in which the cake of customs is broken, as Robert Park put it in his essay on migration and marginality. I have learned that there is little that is universal in my idea of modesty, how to be a good parent, and how to be kind and friendly, for example. I try to treasure the initial discomfort and subsequent freedom that follows an encounter with the boundedness of my own cultural programming.
I write this all as a preface (or maybe an advance apology) for my next post. Sometimes your missteps are accidental and sometimes you have something to say and you can’t see your way to saying it without treading heavily in places where stepping lightly is more advisable.