How Nice is Nice?
This is part of the series, “New American Stories” produced by Erika Lorentzsen for Prairie Public. Among different cultures, definitions of what is a "nice" way to act can really vary. Most people in North Dakota would say they are "nice" without a second thought. But "North Dakota nice" may not translate to the culture of a New American.
I remember once I offended a woman. I had just come back from Puerto Rico. I noticed she was walking by and she was wearing these 6 inch heels. And it was enormous. I mean it made her look very good. I said the shoes make your figure look very beautiful. Looks great. I can’t remember exactly what was said back and forth. She was not pleased. And so, it goes to show the difference in social interactions that are expected or not expected.
Edwin Aybar says compliments one gives a member of the opposite sex, or piropos, are not received the same in America, as they are back home. But other times, he says he is pleasantly surprised.
So a lot of times when I have thrown out piropos with comments that aren’t just about clothing you know nice shirt, but about complimenting a woman’s body her physical appearance her hair. Most of the time, I consciously don’t do that. I know that it’s not done here. The few times I’ve have done it I’ve had a few good surprises, especially from foreigners. One time I complimented this Russian woman. It just came out of me. At first I thought I had offended her. I noticed her hair she had gray in it. She was a little bit of an older lady. It was gorgeous. It just came out. I mentioned how it framed her face. That’s when I thought great I did it again. She was glad that I had done it. She said thank you Edwin for at least noticing. She wasn’t used to that being here and she mentioned that not even her husband, who was an American, complimented her as much as she liked.
In French, when you say someone is gentil or nice it also means simpleminded. For Dirk Ockhardt from Essen, Germany Midwestern nice is fake.
Midwestern nice is a nice thing, but it’s not always the truth. And that’s what I don’t like. It’s nice to be nice on the one side, but I miss the true nice. They’re two faced. So it’s nice but they don’t really tell you until later if they like you. Me not coming from this culture I cannot sense if they’re nice. I don’t get it. It’s just a nice because they have to be nice. Actually they don’t like me. Make sense? It’s just on the surface you don’t really get to the bottom of people until much later. Where I’m from it’s straight out forward. You can sense if someone doesn’t want to talk to you. I say I don’t want you to sit here at the bar. I do that here. Please don’t sit by me at this table. I’m here with a friend. Excuse me I’m having a conversation here, and I’m not interested in talking to you. People look at me funny. I say excuse me I’m having a conversation here. I’m not interested in talking to you. It may not be nice, but it’s the truth. They considered me to be rude. That’s something I can’t sense. People just roll their eyes between each other. I don’t get it that actually I’m not invited. They have to be nice because that’s their culture makes them to. I don’t know that’s difficult and something I don’t quite get.
How people great each other is either acceptable or unacceptable according to cultures. Kashi Atikiari who is from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan says he uses Namaste. Atikari says he has difficulty adjusting to the American bear hug. He doesn’t understand people embracing each other like that.
We have our own way of greeting people. For example, Americans embrace each other and kiss each other. In our cultural context we don’t do that, because we do Namaste when we meet people for the first time. We do Namaste. We shake hands we embrace, but we do not kiss each other. That is one of the new things cultural things that our people are learning, and we are learning too.
In the Himalayas people may be more formal than in Latin countries where there is more touching. The concept of personal space can also vary across cultures. For Edwin, more space can mean a feeling of loneliness.
I hear that it’s 3 feet, at least I hear in the Midwest. I’m not sure about other places in the US. That’s def something you have to get used to coming back here to the states. The idea of not being touched at all. You don’t do the guy hug thing. In Puerto Rico, in a social setting, you’re expected to shake the hand of every guy. You kiss the cheek of every female. The distance, the space when you’re actually talking is much less. Women in Puerto Rice touch a lot more when they’re conversing. So to come back here, it takes a little time to get used to the distance between people. It’s not just me, but some friends here. Usually people feel a lot lonely here. Not much contact actual skin to skin, human contact.
In a global society, few in the world are left without some mixing of cultures. Midwestern nice, stoicism and personal space might take some getting used to by immigrants in North Dakota. Eventually some of those customs from immigrants also seep into American culture like Namaste in yoga and meditation. Society becomes ever evolving. This is Erika Lorentzsen for Prairie Public.
Next, we’ll hear about misunderstandings and jokes. Dirk Ockhardt from Germany says the most difficult thing in another language is to understand jokes. This series was made possible by the support of the Humanities Council and FM Area Foundation.