Note: This was one of my earliest posts on this blog, from a time when I had a total of about three readers. I wrote it in April 2007, when I was in charge of organizing an exchange between my school here in the Netherlands and a school in Romania. We were busy with the first half of the exchange: the Romanian kids visiting us.
Teenagers can be rude. That’s a fact of life, and I would wager that it’s universal, or at least consistent all over the Western world. Some are ruder than others, of course. Most can be quite polite when they make the effort, which is usually when they have some motivation to be polite.
When we arranged our student exchange with a school in Romania, one of the stated goals was to teach our students to be open to differences. We want our students to be open to different cultures and different ways of behaving and thinking, because, in our view, their world view is too limited. They tend to think that either people live just like them, or, if they don’t, that they’re very poor: the image they get from ads for charities on TV. We want them to see things in a more nuanced way. In addition, we wanted them to learn how to get along politely and respectfully with these other ways of behaving and thinking.
There’s the problem: the “politely” and “respectfully” part. If you have contact with a teenager from another culture and he does something rude, how do you know if what he did is normal for his culture or if it’s just a typical teenager being rude?
So when a kid visits a host family, barely eats anything she is offered and disappears to her bedroom immediately after dinner, is that rude? Is she not eating anything because she’s a typical self-centered, the-world-revolves-around-me-and-I-don’t-like-this-food teenager, or is she not eating because that’s polite in Romania: not to consume too much of your host’s food supply? Is she disappearing to a bedroom because she hates the people she’s staying with and doesn’t have any problem with letting them know how she feels, or is it because she is trying not to get in the way of their lives so she’s politely disappearing?
I was planning to tell our students that, when they’re visiting their host families in Romania in October, they better damn well eat whatever they’re served, whether they like it or not. But wait a minute … maybe that would be rude! How will we ever know?