A friend who lives several cities away recently told me she has cancer. Last time we video chatted, I told her I'd love to know how she was feeling if she didn't mind talking about it.
She cocked her head. Why on earth would she mind?
You've heard the analogy, I'm sure: that Americans are like watermelons, hard and guarded on the outside, sweet and full within. It takes time to get to know us; our defences have to be lowered, our barriers deconstructed. But this is oversimplified and increasingly inaccurate, as well as too generous. We treat everyone else as a watermelon, too; and what's the shell guarding? Why can't it just be shared right away? Is it possible that western culture puts more value on the shell than its contents?
I come across cultural differences every day, some more entertaining than others. I've had to learn that I will get an honest answer when I ask "How's it going?", that opinions are something to be shared clearly, that a far walk will take, without exception, "about 20 minutes."
I've offended family by needing personal space and isolated friends by keeping my heart tucked a bit too high up my sleeve. I've gotten into unwanted situations because I gave a nonanswer instead of an honest and flat no. No one cared that I was trying to give them space, because we weren't working out of the same mental model.
I've placed politeness above sincerity. Privacy above intimacy. Tact above honesty.
Living in Eastern Europe made me question the weight of my values, but it first made me realize that I had them at all. I had to come to terms with my shell and, instead of letting it rot, crack it against the pavement. And I'm glad I did, because some of my relationships here are richer than anything I've had in the States.