I really liked this post by Duncan Sabien:
Because none of us quite have the same culture, after all. We all differ in different ways from the Basic Package—even those of us who’ve lived in the same towns, gone to the same schools, worked in the same industries, played the same sports, read the same books, watched the same shows—we’ve all got our own unique little takes, built up out of the odd quirks of our parents, tiny traumas and formative experiences, countless accumulated musings about how Things Could Be So Much Better If Everyone Would Just _________!
And so Your Culture, though it might match mine at a thousand different points, will also be noticeably different at a thousand others. You and I would found different churches, write different constitutions, build different schools and startups—
—and we would recognize different things as trespasses or offenses, and react to those trespasses and offenses in different ways.
And I thought I’d take the opportunity to describe what things are like in my culture. I’m mostly going to be addressing the same subjects Duncan addresses; later in the post I will address some things he doesn’t mention.
In my culture, although we wouldn’t use many of the words or the framing Duncan uses, we are conscious of the idea of a broader “context culture.” We are not only aware that other cultures do things differently and we should cooperate with them, but that these cultures often work well for their adherents. There’s a default assumption that people are different, and their needs are different, and if your needs are incompatible with mine you can’t be my friend but I still might wish you well.
Conversely, in my culture, there is little felt need to justify our norms to outsiders. Someone from another culture might say “that wouldn’t work for me” as a counterargument to our norms; this is likely to be met with a blank stare of incomprehension. Of course they don’t work for you. We didn’t design them to work for you. You should leave us alone to do our thing, and maybe you can find some other thing you like better somewhere else.
In my culture, it is assumed that people regularly fail to choose their most-preferred option from the list of options available. You will prefer X, and want to do X, and really intend to do X, and for some reason wind up instead doing Y. We don’t use the word “akrasia”, any more than you’d have a word for every action other than sitting in chairs. But we observe that while most people sit in chairs sometimes, and many people sit in chairs all day long, it is not at all uncommon to do something other than sit in a chair. Similarly, it is not at all uncommon to (for example), really prefer and want and intent that you go to bed at 10pm and instead stay up until 2am on Facebook.
It is important, therefore, in my culture, to distinguish between a person doing X because they actually want to do X, and a person doing X for some other reason. Of course, sometimes things actually have to get done; the baby’s diaper has to be changed regularly no matter what reasons you have for not changing the baby’s diaper. And sometimes people lie about what their preferences are, or self-deceive into believing they want to study Latin when in reality they want to write high-context fanfiction.
But it’s possible to distinguish between those things. And the right way to respond to a person not wanting to do something is different from the right way to respond to them wanting to do something and not doing it. The former can sometimes be changed by persuasion, giving people more information, or incentives, but often can’t be changed at all; you just have to accept that the person isn’t going to do the thing until they want to. Depending on what the problem specifically is, the latter can in theory be changed many different ways, from Facebook-blocking software to medication to making sure to get enough sleep to keeping tempting objects out of your house to reframing the way you think about things.
But sometimes the latter cannot be changed either. And even in that case we think it makes sense to treat them differently, in my culture. It can be frustrating to try your hardest to do something, and fail, and be told that that’s because you actually just wanted a different thing. We think “I wanted to but couldn’t because of my mental limitations” isn’t that much different from “I wanted to but failed because of my physical limitations.”
In my culture, we distinguish between an emotion being valid, an emotion being justified, and an emotion being effective.
A valid emotion is simply one that makes sense. All emotions are valid, because all emotions occur for reasons connected to particular situations, details of your history, thoughts and models you have of the world, and so on. Your emotions are trying to help you as best as they can, given what they “know” about the world, both from past experience and from the powerful optimization process of evolution. No emotion is stupid or dumb or wrong.
A justified emotion is one that in a certain sense “corresponds” to the situation that prompted it. If you respond to someone insulting you for no reason by cringing and apologizing, that’s valid; you have reasons to do that. But the justified response is anger. In general, among flourishing and self-actualized humans, people respond with anger to being insulted.
An effective emotion is one that gets you the thing you want in the situation. You’re stuck in traffic and you’re angry that you’re going to be late. This is a valid emotion– there are reasons for it– and it is a justifiable emotion– anger is a justifiable response when an important goal is frustrated. But it is not an effective emotion. Being angry will not cause the traffic to move any faster, and it might make you feel unhappy. If being angry causes you to drive more recklessly, it may even cause harm.
In my culture, as in Duncan’s, you can leave any conversation at any time. While there are blunt or rude or cruel ways to leave a conversation, you don’t owe anyone your time, attention, or energy on demand. Of course, there are obvious exceptions: if you’re the parent of a young child, for example, or someone has paid you to have the conversation. And there are relationships where you can expected to provide a certain amount of time, attention, or energy in general, even if you can’t be expected to provide it on any specific occasion.
Suicidality and other forms of mental health crisis are not one of the exceptions. If you are suicidal, people may choose to sit and talk with you about it, but you have no right to demand that they do.
In my culture, if I cover the check, you won’t pay me back, but it is expected that at some point you will cover the check for me, and it will all balance out. (Or not– maybe you’re broke, and covering the checks is just the cost of me spending time with you. That’s fine too.)
If you actually do want the check to be split, you should probably remind me; that way only one person has to remember the debt.
My culture tends to assume that people are generous but very forgetful.
In my culture, we try to recognize the ways that people communicate affection. It’s easy to miss that someone cares about you if you’re looking for them to express affection one way and the way they express affection is different. Sometimes it can cause hurt, if you are looking for affection expressed by invitations to things you like” and you aren’t getting any and assume you are not loved, when in reality your friend was attempting to express affection by reading your Tumblr and having thoughtful opinions about your posts.
So we make an effort to notice the ways that each individual person expresses care and affection within a particular relationship. They bring you a cookie when they go to the store to get snacks; they make a moodboard about your favorite character; they say affectionate words; they take your infant for an afternoon so you have some time to write; they stay up late to talk to you when you’re sad; they send you links to articles they think you’ll like, and they’re usually right; they read the books you recommend.
In my culture, it is always okay to ask verbally for consent for a hug. That doesn’t mean that you always will– sometimes you know someone’s cuddly, sometimes you can read their body language, sometimes you know each other well– but it’s unmarked to ask. We don’t notice or care whether you ask. If someone asks a lot, even when told that hugs are always fine, they might get teased lightly and affectionately about it, but it’s a quirk and doesn’t need to be changed.
If you’re touching someone for a while, it is also always okay to check in whether the cuddling is welcome, if you are uncertain.
My culture is, perhaps relatedly, very very cuddly. It is not at all uncommon in my culture to cuddle with platonic friends or friends of friends. While cuddling is sometimes a sign of flirting, it is often just an indicator of affection.
In my culture, if you randomly punch someone (even lightly, without causing damage) without prior consent, it is a major violation of social norms. You will be gossiped about and not invited to parties. People will passive-aggressively tell their toddlers about how YOU know that we do not hit but EVEN SOME ADULTS are confused about this. When your name comes up, people will say, “oh, isn’t that the guy who hits people?”
Of course, you may feel free to punch people if you have discussed this with them ahead of time and clarified that they are okay with it.
In my culture, if you want people to celebrate your birthday, you must announce “IT WILL BE MY BIRTHDAY SOON” several weeks ahead of time to give them a chance to prepare. If you fail to do this and your spouse forgets about your birthday and is like “isn’t your birthday coming up soon?” a week after it happens, this is a funny story and not a great offense. It isn’t even a funny story if it happens with your friend, it’s just normal.
In my culture, if you honk at people and there is not an immediate safety concern, you are an asshole and people will fantasize about fining you twenty dollars every time you do. More generally, my culture takes noise pollution very seriously; we’re opposed to car alarms, fireworks, and loud parties at unreasonable hours.
In my culture, there’s a strong norm that there are things we do not do. We don’t misgender anyone, no matter what. We don’t make fun of people’s names or appearances, no matter what. It’s always acceptable to say “hey, I think you’re being unfair, a more reasonable interpretation of that person’s words/actions is X,” no matter how many awful things that person has said or done.
It’s not that there aren’t any ways you can punish someone who is doing wrong. You can personally decide not to interact with them and encourage your friends to do the same. You can gossip; my culture is extremely gossipy, about good things as well as bad. You can criticize their behavior. In extreme situations, you can post a public callout post or even call the cops. But there is a certain baseline of respect everyone gets just because they’re a person, and you don’t lose that.
In my culture, people often say things behind other people’s back that they wouldn’t say to their face, but it’s a moral failing (however slight). You might phrase things more tactfully around the person, or avoid bringing it up unless directly asked, but you shouldn’t say someone’s dress looks nice and then make fun of it when they’re out of the room. You can either avoid making fun of the dress or say “eh, I don’t love the color on you” when they ask you about it.
In my culture, if someone makes an unusual claim about how their brains work– “actually, I’m two different people”, “I identify as a lizard”, “I can summon Loki into my brain”– there are a range of acceptable ways to respond to this claim. You can shrug. You can ask questions, as long as they’re polite and curious and the other person is willing to answer. You can say “cool!” You can say “what is the etiquette around people who are in some sense lizards?”
You are not permitted to mock them, or to ask questions if they don’t want to answer questions, or to condescendingly explain to them that people are not actually lizards, or to get offended about how People Think They’re Lizards Now, Tumblr Has Gone Too Far. If they ask you not to call them a human, or to use plural pronouns for them, or to switch names when they put on the necklace that indicates that they are a different person, then you should do that. Of course, they should also be understanding if you forget or if the thing they’re asking is something you’re just not capable of. If you absolutely can’t handle not calling someone a human, then you should avoid that person; clearly you are socially incompatible.
It’s okay to privately think they’re not having the experience they claim to be having. If they are a close personal friend or have signaled openness to such conversations, you might bring it up politely and respectfully. If they are not, you should leave them alone, because someone having weird beliefs but not bothering anyone is literally none of your business.