I’m from Canada. In case you haven’t heard, we’re a polite people, always minding our manners.
From the time you learn what manners are, you quickly realize that there are certain things that are just NOT to be discussed. A person’s weight is close to the top of that list; especially if you’re referring to someone being overweight. It’s off limits. You just don’t go there. You pretend you don’t notice. It’s an unwritten rule that anyone with manners follows.
So you can imagine my surprise when I left Canada and immersed myself into a multicultural community with people from all corners of the world. I found out quickly that what I considered “good manners” may have actually been cultural bashfulness.
What is off limits and considered rude in my country was fair game and perfectly polite in other countries. Really? This was going to take some getting used to.
Now, right away you might be thinking that I’m obviously just running with the wrong crowd, to which I assure you, that is not the case.
I’ll start with the example of my new local doctor. He will not only tell you that it is time to lose weight, he will get in your personal space, give your mid-line roll a friendly squeeze, and playfully tell you that it’s time to deflate the spare tire.
The first time I heard of him doing this I thought for sure he wouldn’t be around long enough to let it happen again. But I assure you, he’s not urban legend; he has not been sued, and he’s one of the best doctors around. He just has no issue telling it like it is, and clearly he’s into ‘hands on’ teaching. This would never happen in Canada.
Let me take you further on my tour of cultural revelations as we visit the gate of an International School. If you’ve never been, let me tell you it’s like a meeting of the UN. You name a culture and it’s likely you can find someone willing to wave their flag.
My friend was dropping her daughter off at the school gate and a fellow classroom mom came over and wished her Happy New Year. She looked my friend up and down and observed with no malice and quite casually, “You got fat.”
“Pardon?” My friend asks confused, plastering a cautious smile on her face.
The woman, obviously from a culture where this was socially acceptable, grabs my friends cheeks, gives them a good pinch and repeats her sentiment while smiling: “You ate too much at Christmas, yes? You got fat.”
My friend wanted to shrivel up into a ball and die, right there on the spot. But to this woman, talking about someone’s weight–good or bad–was fair game.
So, who is right?
In my country, we avoid talking about someone’s weight like the topic is a bio-hazard. And yet, people are getting bigger and bigger. Your doctor would most likely lose his job if he ever tried to grab your fat and shake it to emphasize his advice. But this weight we don’t speak of is starting to become the elephant in the room.
In other countries, they talk about weight like they talk about the weather. If you packed on a few pounds worth of Christmas cookies, they’re going to notice, and let you know. Interestingly, this freedom of good natured discussion hasn’t actually caused a society of traumatized anorexics walking around and their obesity rate isn’t through the roof either.
I’m not going to say who’s right or wrong, because frankly I don’t know. I’d say somewhere in the middle would be nice.
In the meantime, keep me away from that school gate after any overindulgent holidays.