July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.
It is one of those subtle yet distinctive cultural differences, like not getting ice in your drink in Europe unless you ask (and then only 2 – 3 cubes), or the differing concepts of personal space in Asia and elsewhere. You do not consciously observe these unwritten ‘rules’ in your own usual environment, but when you become immersed in an environment where such norms are different, they become oh so obvious.
When the cultural distinctions also fall along outwardly relatively obvious physical ethnic and/or racial differences, the discovery can be relatively straightforward. In Korean culture, for example, polite people are supposed to hand you things with two hands, which they accomplish sometimes just by touching their “handing” arm with their “non-handing” hand. You might also be surprised at the way little old Korean ladies will not hesitate to push and shove you out of the way on the subway without the “excuse me” one may have become accustomed to in the U.S. Yet no one talks loudly or disturbs each other in any other way while riding (unlike public transit back home). Once such differences between acceptable behavior become known to the outsider, he can easily recognize these markers of Korean culture almost as easily as he can recognize the Korean people observing them.
The explanation of cultural differences may be a lot more difficult to arrive at if one is immersed in (or observing) a culture that appears homogeneous from the outside. As, for example, when observing a group of “white people” one of whom is “yelling.”
Take me, for example. I never yell.
And though outwardly my appearance may be lumped into that broad, often misused, and always insensitive (at least to cultural differences) if not outright offensive category of “white,” a more correct ethnic identifier of my background would be: Hungarian. The purpose of explaining differences between “ethnicity” and “race” or the way these terms are applied for reasons of convenience is beyond the scope of this Chronicle.
The point is, I never yell, because Hungarians do not yell. It’s just how we talk. Especially when engaged in a spirited ‘discussion,’ which may well have all the outward appearances of something the uninitiated might characterize as an argument, or even a ‘shouting match.’ The distinction is even more difficult to make when the phenomenon occurs in a group of “white” people, only some of whom may be actual Hungarians, which happens on occasion. Why is one yelling? He must be rude. All the other ones are politely talking at decibels far below what’s usually reserved for occasions when voices must compete with the noise levels on the tarmac of a busy international airport, and they do not appear nearly as animated as the almost cartoonish intensity of the fellow with the bulging veins on his neck resembling a frightened worm seeking cover from a pecking bird, with possibly a bloody nose and beads of sweat squeezing through the pores on his forehead like frightened victims desperately seeking escape from the intense heat of flames through the windows of a burning building.
But oh no, don’t judge a book by its cover. What may count as rude in one culture of “white” people is practically celebrated as a national sport in another. Screaming is as Hungarian as what non-Hungarians call ‘Goulash’ (but which we know better as either gulyás leves or pörkölt), or Pálinka, or complaining. Incidentally, these are all things Hungarians enjoy with regular frequency, and they are all things that can fairly be described as “oral” pleasures. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the country is called by a name that in English is very close to a word that expresses a state of hunger… Yes, Hungary is only one vowel removed from hungry. And no, no Hungarian thinks any joke based on that coincidence is funny. But back to discussion of things all Hungarians relish.
In Hungary, screaming at each other is how best of friends show affection for one another. Hand gestures may come into play as well, but certainly not with the nuanced, almost theatrical performance and complexity that Italians tend to employ on a regular basis to add a bit of flair to their conversations. No, it is just an exhibition of sheer lung capacity, sprinkled with a few “bazdmeg” and other variants of the word that is the mother of all curse words in Hungarian, usually well lubricated with beer or spirits, is all that is required for a truly immersive Magyar cultural experience.
Another almost equally important facet of the classical Hungarian shouting match is never to wait until the other participant(s) finishes the sentence before beginning the forceful response, whether in retort or in agreement. This makes the process a bit more challenging for a non-native, as something of a prerequisite is the ability to anticipate the appropriate response and vocalize it quickly and loudly enough to be sure that it cuts off the original speaker after just enough has been expressed, like a verbal circumcision of sorts, removing the final syllable or two with surgical precision while retaining the meat of the argument so that the verbal jousting may continue toward an ever louder, frenzied climax at some point during the wee hours of the morning, before finally fizzling out.
Although I have relocated to the United States long ago and adopted many of the customs and conventions of the locality where I settled, occasionally, under just the right circumstances, I fall back to the instincts I acquired in my childhood. At such times, an ever-so-slight Eastern European accent may become more noticeable. And once in a blue moon, I may revert to full-on Hungarian shouting match mode.
This is nothing of which to be frightened. Despite my somewhat imposing frame and even my involvement in past endeavors trading punches with even more menacing figures than I, the production is a harmless cultural expression of Hungarian-ness. Perhaps in other cultures, even among other “white” people, this may seem rude to the untrained outside observer. If that is your perception, you are simply culturally ignorant. This Chroncile, however, should provide you with a lesson in humanities sufficient for any reader to appreciate one of the most important practices in a rich heritage of Hungarian customs.
So now, you have no excuses. Although it may seem that way from the outside, I never yell.