Culture and Conflict: Permission to Speak Freely?


When Josh and I put out the call for guest bloggers for this series, we wanted to hear from people with real life culture clash experiences. Former US Marine Garvin Anders has those experiences in spades. In a candid post, he discusses how tricky communication can be between sub-cultures within cultures.

Culture clash can happen in a lot of different ways and I’ve experienced most of them, if I may be excused some vanity. I am a hearing child of deaf parents. I grew up in Oklahoma but live in Arizona. I am a Marine surrounded by civilians. I am a Christian whose closest friends are atheists. Thanks to the Marine Corps, I’ve experienced Japanese and Arabic cultures in a pretty up close and personal way (there is little more personal than being shot at, I think). In some ways it’s hard for me to pick up singular incidents of cultural conflict because, frankly, dealing with different cultures is a norm for me.

In Deaf culture, for example, it’s perfectly normal to be blunt to the point of what the rest of the world would consider rudeness. When I arrived back home for Christmas after being away for two years, my mother’s first words to me were, “You gained a lot of weight!” It’s also normal to tell someone all sorts of things when you first meet them. I’ve had deaf people tell me their entire life story after knowing them for only fifteen minutes. This bluntness makes sense when you realize that, if you’re deaf, you don’t get to spend a lot of time with people just like you. You might only see another deaf person a couple of times a month. In those rare meetings, you have to make up for lost time. Public school trained those habits right out of me. It also trained me to swing low and hard. I still dislike having conversations where I’m not looking at the person or they’re not looking at me. When I’m having a Skype conversation? I’m staring at the screen as a substitute a lot of the time.

Those culture clashes I’m used to. Those are my life. The real nasty ones? Those are the ones that sneak up on you. When you think you’re not around any cultural divides.

There’s also the clashes that come when you were raised in a religious household and still maintain the faith. Even if the vast majority of your friends really don’t. I brought a conversation with several of my friends to a screeching halt with several of my friends because I told them I couldn’t really have anything to do with Tarot Cards or Ouija boards. Not because I believe there’s anything to them but, to be blunt, they’re symbolic of a belief system that a Christian, or at least the kind of Christian I am, shouldn’t have much to do with. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine for other people to use them if they like, but I really can’t. My friends simply could not grasp this explanation. They knew that the cards and the boards and all that didn’t work. Since they didn’t work, there simply couldn’t be any issues in messing around with them. That I could have reasons that don’t have anything to do with my belief in their ability to tell the future or contact the dead (I don’t believe in that for the record), seemed to fly right over their heads no matter how I struggled to explain it. In the end, I finally just said I don’t mess with them for my parents’ sakes, which while not anywhere near the primary reason was close enough to true, and convenient enough an explanation to make everyone happy.

For awhile after the Marines I had a job cleaning theaters. I learned to hate it because… Well let’s just say most of my fellow employees there share my feelings. I worked there because I was in school and needed to pay rent in the summer (the GI Bill is nowhere near as magnificent as you think). The theater was having a rough spot, money was coming in but people were quitting and it was hard to keep anyone. Well, harder than usual. For some reason a manager got it in her head to ask me what I thought. I did something stupid. I lapsed into Marine. I asked if I could speak freely and, when told yes, I proceeded to be honest and forthright and frankly I did some bitching. Because frankly the management was part of the problem.

Now, in the Marine Corps (and other armed services), bitching is a right of enlisted men. There are rules of course—don’t bitch in front of outsiders; bitch up not down; do your fucking job first, bitch second. Additionally, let me cover ‘permission to speak freely’. It’s a phrase often quoted in movies but not so often said (I served for 4 years, I think I used it… Twice? Not more than that). It’s a bit of a loaded question. Saying yes means you agree to hear what I have to say and not hold it against me professionally or personally. You can say no, but say no too often and you’ll find yourself with a reputation as someone who cannot be trusted, and units have ways of screwing over their leaders if they want to. In the world of movie theaters “permission to speak freely” doesn’t work like that.

After speaking freely, I was sent home for the day for improper attitude. Luckily one of the newer managers who heard about the conversation the next day was ex-Army and, after a brief discussion with me, he smoothed it over. I still get grumpy about that incident from time to time, though. I mean if you didn’t want to hear what I actually had to say, why did you even bother to ask?

GArvin bio picGarvin Anders, born in the 80’s to Deaf Pentecostal ministers, served as a Marine, worked in factories, Walmarts, fast food places and more.  He attended ASU until someone was silly enough to give him a BA in Anthropology. He currently works for an insurance company while tutoring ASL and writing strange blog entries.

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