Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Some cultural differences are easy to learn. For example, once you hear that it isn’t appropriate to show your shoulders in church, it’s pretty easy to remember not to put on a sleeveless dress on Sunday morning. (Recently our pastor’s wife was looking at Karen’s wedding pictures. When she saw that I had worn a sleeveless dress and Lexi a strapless one, she sighed and said, “If a woman wore something like that to a wedding or church here, they would probably stone her.” She was exaggerating, but you get the idea.) But other things are ingrained and difficult to change. One of the hardest has to do with eye contact. It isn’t appropriate here for a woman to sustain eye contact with a man. After having spent my early twenties in the US, learning that a firm handshake while looking someone directly in the eyes inspires trust, it took me years to learn the Cameroonian art of eye contact. When talking to a man, I catch his eye very briefly, then I look away: over his shoulder, at the ground, off to the side – anywhere but at his eyes. But it’s important to sort of “check in” every once in awhile, looking at his eyes so that he knows I’m still engaged in the conversation. (I must say that knitting is a huge help in this situation, as it gives me somewhere obvious to look.) When I returned to the US after 23 years of this, it took me another few years to look a man in the eyes again, and I find it awkward to this day. It’s easier for me here.