I am not capable of keeping up with the banter of the city-bred natives with whom I work. It must be something in the breast-milk, some kind of heavy metal in the soil that gives them the ability to shout back and forth at each other about inane topics, tossing in a cap-full of off-color language for taste.
Being quieter than the others not only excludes me from most of the socializing, but I would go so far as to say that one of my co-workers actually disliked me at first because of it.
One time we were both reaching for the copy machine at the same time. When I realized it, I backed off and said “Sorry.”
“No ya not!” He shouted. “Why don’t ya say what ya really feel?” He seemed genuinely disgusted by my gesture.
Perplexed at first, I soon realized that I, being raised in a significantly different place and culture, seemed as bizarre to them as they did to me. To southerners (and I’m painting with broad strokes here), northerners are loud, brash and rude. To northerners, southerners are phony and must have something up their sleeve with all their smiles and politeness. But neither is actually true. Southerners really are friendly, and have genuine and heartfelt goodwill for their fellow man. It’s not a put-on. And northerners are just loud and fast talkers who don’t hold back, but it’s not considered offensive or taken personally by other northerners. It’s expected. And re-spected. In fact, it’s the overly nice, “wishy-washy” person that gets on their nerves.
And while behavior born of foreign culture is always misunderstood (since it is by definition, unacceptable behavior locally) our cultural customs are more arbitrary than they are indicative of any fundamental difference between us. Like the neck-rings worn by tribes of southeast Asia, cultural idiosyncrasies exist to unite people, providing something we can identify with and bond around as a community. As such, all customs are really just an expression of the universal need to belong, being the social animals that we are.
And then there’s me: a short-neck who’s just stumbled out of the forest into a village of long-necks, who poke, prod and sniff me as they discuss whether or not to boil and eat the stranger.
Of course, over time, my office-mates have learned to accept and even like me, just as I have them. I am even getting a little better at participating in conversations.
My secret is to just say something. Anything. And say it loud. I try not to think too much before speaking. I just blurt it out. Sometimes this backfires and I produce nonsense, but at those times I just think about Dean Flint, whom I could never in my wildest dreams make less sense than. Anyway, confidence is more important than content.
So the other day Mr Green walks into the office, looks at me and shouts his usual, “Docta! How we doin’!”
The day before, I had commented on his shirt in an attempt to converse. “Nice shirt,” I had said. “Must be nice to have someone to iron those for you.” Remember, just say something.
“Iron?” He scoffed. “Try tha cleaners!”
“Well, must be nice to be able to afford the cleaners,” I responded uncreatively.
He just grunted, and walked away.
So today, I noticed his shirt looked a lot like the one he had on yesterday. Struggling to come up with a response to his usual opener of “Docta!” I said, “Hey, that’s like yesterday’s shirt, but brown.”
Look, I’m not trying to sleep with the guy. Just briefly interact. That’s all.
But then he took it to an entirely other realm, as if to prove once and for all, that I will never, ever belong.
“Yeah, Pistol!” He shouted. “You’re right! You see, what happened is my dawta took a dump on tha floah. And I wiped it up wit this!”
Then he grunted and walked away.