Last week, I walked into one of my second grade classes (“second form,” in Georgian English). It was a day like any other. “How are you,” I asked my coteacher.
“Oh, not very good”, she said, pronouncing “good” to rhyme with “food.” “I have a cough and a sore throat.” This sentence, which sentenced me to my current state, was pronounced no more than a foot away from my face.
Mustering all the restraint in my soul, I managed not to recoil in horror from this news. I muttered some platitude about hoping she feels better (as if the alternative – having a sore throat for the rest of her life – were some sort of plausible outcome of her current circumstances). I tried to stay far away from her for the lesson, but Georgians are close-talkers.
Last spring I caught a cold from a little girl on a bus who coughed directly into my face. Of course, I can’t substantiate either of these theories – I may well have caught this cold, or that cold, from one of the hundreds of anonymous strangers who never cough on me or close-talk me – but in both cases, I had a distinct premonition when the incident occurred that I would almost certainly get sick as a result, and I certainly was sick in the ensuing weeks. Yes, weeks – for some reason, upper-respiratory infections tend to stick with me for quite a long time; maybe because of my weak lungs (asthma, chronic bronchitis, three confirmed pneumonia infections and several more suspected). Usually the initial cold goes away normally but I am left with a persistent cough for a while afterwards; I am functional and presumably not contagious during this time, but I am generally pretty unhappy to be coughing every day and night for a month.
I knew going into teaching that teachers get sick more than most other professionals; it’s a hazard of the job that you are in close interaction with lots of little disease vectors who haven’t quite mastered hygiene yet. “Knew” is a strong word; I haven’t bothered to research this theory so it might be just another stupid old wives’ tale, but it certainly seems truthy. I imagine that my getting sick a lot in Georgia is also related to overall Georgian concepts of hygiene, although I’m sure Georgians think it’s because I take showers in the morning and don’t drink enough chacha.
Point is, I’m starting to get pretty annoyed at having two to three colds a year. This time, I’m super irritated – not just because my friend is making peanut butter brownies and I’m not going to get to have any; not just because the warm weather is finally here and I’m stuck in the house in a sweater because I have fever-chills; but mostly because of something that I have to admit is somewhat similar to culture shock.
I’ve recently started to really understand that Georgian senses of politeness and social acceptability differ strikingly from what I grew up with. All those times that I complained about how Georgians stare at people, and how rude that was, and how uncomfortable it made TLG volunteers, and it honestly never occurred to me that in Georgia, staring just isn’t considered rude. I mean, it’s so simple, and it explains so much – but not a single Georgian or American ever so much as asked me (in comments, on facebook, in person) what was wrong with staring. Everyone seemed to acknowledge that the staring was wrong, especially the Georgians, who generally tried to make excuses for it; no one ever said “well in Georgia, staring is perfectly acceptable.”
I was talking to a Georgian friend who said that when TLGers complain about kids running around in the hallways in school, Georgians have absolutely no clue why or what is wrong with that scenario. This also explained a lot – for instance, the blank, confused stares I’ve gotten from Georgian people every time I’ve complained about kids running around in the hallways in schools – but again, it was something I hadn’t realized.
I think the unifying problem is that the vast majority of Georgians, when faced with something they don’t fully comprehend, simply stop communicating. Some just smile and laugh nervously, some stare at you like it’s their job, but in most cases I think they just bullshit you.
I end up having to guess at the cultural differences – mostly, I can’t help but notice, because Georgians seem to lie a lot. I try not to be offended, and I try to tell myself that this is just their culture – but of course, saying that dishonesty is a Georgian cultural trait is likely to be highly offensive to Georgians, so I can’t really ask Georgians what they think about this and expect to get any sort of reasonable answer. And I wonder if other people think Americans are liars, because there are a lot of times in American culture where you either dance around the truth or dress it up by convention. When someone asks how you are in America, you’re supposed to give a quick, one or two word answer that amounts to “fine, thanks,” and then respond with something like “and you?” Your mother could be dying of cancer and you’re still supposed to say “fine, thanks.” We don’t think of that as a lie, and we don’t call it a lie, and linguists and anthropologists construct that exchange as a ritual in which the words carry meaning other than that of the literal meaning of the words, kind of like how we still shake hands with each other even though we’re not actually searching each other for a hidden dagger.
And so I really try to be understanding, and I try to always give people the benefit of the doubt, and I try to remind myself that people in America probably lied to me too and maybe I just didn’t notice it as much because I wasn’t always on the lookout for cues about how to interpret my environment and the behavior of those around me.
But then someone lies to me, or about me, or in front of me, and my throat hurts from coughing up disgusting green slime, and my head aches and my skin is feverish and I can’t take anymore, and in that moment, I think, “why are Georgians such liars? Why are Georgians so comfortable with lying, and so willing to ask me to lie for them or with them?”
Is that a valid question, or is that culturally insensitive? I think in a lot of cases, Georgians lie because their culture demands it, like when women lie about being virgins or men lie about going to prostitutes, or whatever. I think in some cases there’s a lot of post-Soviet paranoia – Georgians who lie because they think that the government is after them.
(And while I’m sitting here worrying about offending Georgians, I half expect that Georgians are going to respond with, “yes, of course we lie a lot. So what? There’s nothing wrong with that!”)
Back in the early days of TLG, volunteers used to sit around and try to figure out what was going on. We’d all independently concluded that Georgians seemed to lie a lot but we couldn’t tell if it was them actually lying or us just misinterpreting things. We knew that if we asked two Georgians the same question we’d always get two or more different answers – but not like, opinion questions; I mean questions like “Is there a Populi on this street” or “how do I get to the Metro from here.” We thought of alternatives – maybe it’s not that Georgians are liars; maybe they just suck at geography. Ultimately none of us ever arrived at a satisfactory answer; we just eventually got used to all the lying, and we joked about it with each other occasionally but we learned to live with it.
Every once in a while, though – when I’m sick, or when I need to rely on a Georgian person for something important, but can’t because Georgians keep turning out to be untrustworthy (or, as happened today, both) – the lying just irks me.
Well, that’s it. Sorry for the pointless rant.