The Truth, It Hurts.
One day my friend Patty, a slight, smiley blonde from Minnesota, was in the dorm kitchen cooking breakfast when Eunice, one of the women who works in the building, walked by. Patty, being the sunny, amiable type, smiled and said good morning and asked how Eunice was. Eunice broke into a responding smile, replied, and after a short conversation, turned to go – but not before cheerfully observing that though Patty was very thin when she had arrived in the dorm, she was “now getting fat!”
This directness is the kind of thing that still takes me (and a few of my other friends) by surprise down here. It is one of the culture clashes that I’m not sure will ever entirely pass – even after months here we still trade stories about the surprisingly candid comments that we hear.
As far as I’ve heard, there has never been any malice behind these disconcertingly pointed statements: they aren’t exaggerated or ill-intentioned, they are just said so matter-of-factly that as students who come from cultures with a tradition of ‘sugarcoating,’ we are literally taken aback by them. South Africans take frankness in every day communication for granted, to the point where they are sometimes perplexed by the baffled laughter that their comments can elicit from us. When my friend’s reply to a boy stopping her in the middle of the hall to inform her that he thought she was “beautiful” was to wait for him to justify the statement, he didn’t seem to understand that it was out of the ordinary for some not to simply state a fact for the sake of stating it. Nor did a South African friend of mine think anything of telling me that I looked “terrible” when I ran into him very early in the morning. (In his defence, I really did.)
This directness is something that I think I’ll definitely miss when I go back to school in the United States- partially because of the stories you get from it, and partially because of the open atmosphere it creates. In many cases, the South Africans that I have encountered (particularly the men) take for granted that the truth, by virtue of being the truth, is inoffensive, and should be spoken with social impunity. While I do see why I don’t run into it too often back home (I could do without comments on my early-morning appearance from now on), I also think it leads to conversations and stories that otherwise just wouldn’t happen- and at the very least, it gets you help with cooking dinner.