You’re not in America Anymore!

You're not in America Anymore!
By Sierra Buehlman Barbeau
Sept. 6, 2017

One thing that many Volunteers notice in Armenia is the differences between the American and Armenian definitions of “rude” and “polite.”

At first, many of us find it difficult to understand why our counterparts are late to class, why our host moms burst into our bedrooms without asking, why we get stared at in the streets, and why we are asked how much we weigh in front of the whole staff at school. I’ve learned a lot adjusting to these different ideas of “rude” and “polite,” and I wanted to share the differences between the cultures: 

Rude in the USA, Normal in Armenia:

1. Coming over unannounced: Almost weekly, my counterpart will say to me, “Why didn’t you come over?” and I’ll say, “Well, I tried to call you but you didn’t answer so I didn’t know if you were at home!” And she’ll patiently remind me that I’m not in America anymore: I’m welcome whenever I feel like it for a cup of coffee or to chat, she is always happy to have me.

2. Being late: This is something that’s bound to irritate American Volunteers– when I drag myself out of bed, skip breakfast, and come to school with a headache only to find myself waiting ten minutes for my counterpart, this can be a great source of stress for me. However, she always has a good excuse– as a mother, sometimes she has to put her kids first. As a wife, sometimes she has to wait for her husband to get ready. Often times, her excuses are family-related, and as this is a family-oriented society instead of a work-oriented society, it’s acceptable to be late here. I like it. I’m getting too used to it. I never skip breakfast, and if Tatik (my host grandmother) needs help with something as I’m leaving for school, I never refuse anymore. What’s five minutes late when you’re taking care of yourself or your family?

3. Interrupting a meeting: Today, I was waiting outside my director’s door waiting for her to finish her talk with the teacher who went into the room before me. I was just being polite, giving them privacy, but then, a second teacher burst into the director’s office (cutting in “line!”) and started talking to the director, over the teacher who was already in there. I was soon reminded that my silly, American ideas of politeness didn’t matter here, and I walked into the office and delivered my message to the director.

4. The person who is calling you on the phone comes before the person standing in front of you: This one is a pain, especially when I tell the shopkeeper that I’m in a hurry or if I’m in the middle of a conversation with someone, but this one is easily understandable. They don’t have voicemail in Armenia! If someone calls, they do need to answer to find out who it is and what the person wants.

5. Not waiting in line: It’s just how it is here. As much as some Volunteers try to change it, that’s just the way it is here, and if it works for them, why not? I (stupidly) tried to get my fourth graders to wait in line to pick out their colored paper during art club one day. It was a massive failure  and caused me too much stress, so the next time, I just spread out the materials on a table (far, far away from me, so I wouldn’t get stressed out…) and let them fight for what they wanted, like usual. Kids here are good at that, figuring out arguments themselves.

Rude in Armenia, Normal in the USA:

1. Refusing a second cup of coffee, more food, more vodka, etc: In America, we like to “respect” another person when they refuse more dinner or chocolate or alcohol– maybe they’re on a diet. Maybe they’ve had enough to drink. Or maybe they just don’t feel like more! But in Armenia, if you refuse something, it can be insulting to the host. This is a hard one for us to navigate because it sometimes means that we eat much more than we would like!

2. Sitting alone in your room: It’s easy for host families to misinterpret a Volunteer sitting alone in her room. For us, it’s just re-energizing, working, and enjoying time alone, but to host families, it is sometimes seen as rude, and the family might imagine that the Volunteer doesn’t like them. This takes some getting used to and coordinating between the Volunteer and the family, but luckily, Tatik caught on quickly: if there are too many people in the house, she’ll even let me eat alone in my room!

3. “Casual” dress: I often wear my snow boots to school, even in the spring if it’s muddy. I admit, I sometimes have cat hair on my business pants. I don’t wear make-up. But on the day that I come to school with heels and clothes that don’t collect cat hair, I get stared at and told how beautiful I look 

4. Not engaging in small-talk: This one has taken some getting used to for me. Too often, I would call Ivan, my cab driver and say, “Hi, this is Sierra, can you take me home?” I’m a business-oriented American sometimes, what is proper is to say, “Hi, Ivan, this is Sierra! How are you? Is your kid feeling better? Do you have time to take me home?” Unfortunately, I feel like I realized this too late: I’ve been here a year and I haven’t taken the time to get to know some important people in my life: the shopkeepers, the post woman, the people who work at our hostel. I’ve mostly concentrated on people who are “useful” to me: my counterpart, director, other teachers, and Tatik. In reality, the people the American me views as less important are just as important as the rest. (And, unsurprisingly, the “unimportant” ones are the ones in customer service, the people who are treated the worst in America…)

5. Being self-centered: So often, us Americans are looking out for what is best for us and our futures, our careers, etc, and we forget to look out for other people. As an American, I’m always, subconsciously, thinking about what works best for me, or my projects, my community, my ideas, and Peace Corps and Armenia are teaching me to look out for others first; to ask my counterpart what works for her before expressing what works for me, to be understanding when Tatik has a lot of company over, and to not worry when people are late. Family and community come first here, not the individual.

Even though it’s hard for me to adjust to Armenian ideas of “rude” and “polite,” I hope I do my best. It’s hard not to be insulted when my counterpart is late or when my neighbors stare at me, but it’s even harder to adjust to being “Armenian polite.” It feels so awkward for me to just walk in on a meeting to talk to my director or to come over to my neighbor’s house unannounced. It feels wrong for me to stare at people (that one is also easy to get used to, though…) Just goes to show: what’s wrong in one culture can be right in another culture, and we can’t judge each other. We all grew up with different norms and ideas, and that’s ok.

Sierra Buehlman Barbeau