Rudeness is not objective, it is culturally defined

It seems I stirred up something of a hornets nest by suggesting it isn’t necessarily wrong to leave the telly on when the pastor comes round. I didn’t think it was that controversial to point out that something the Bible doesn’t say isn’t something we, therefore, have to do. Turns out, not everybody agrees. But there we are.

Interestingly, what seemed to lie behind many people’s disagreement was a belief that rudeness and discourtesy are objective. For many, who feel it to be rude to leave the television on when they come over because they demand your full attention (they all must be much more important than me), it is therefore simply obvious that it is rude to do other. I was told by someone it is a first principle established by natural law (whatever that means). A point so obvious, I was told, that the person who said it admitted they had no way of actually establishing it with reference to anything, neither to scripture nor anything in the created order. It was just a matter of fact to be accepted a priori.

Others insisted that, because they believed it rude not to turn the TV off when you have visitors, it necessarily must be rude. A few claimed because they were from working class backgrounds, but still believed it to be rude, that was an open and shut matter. Objective proof. Only, the countless working class people who disagree, and do not find it at all rude when people do it to them, means it is not so cut and dry. No answer was forthcoming to why the objective measure of rudeness always seems to line up with British middle class understandings of rudeness. Given that the dominant culture, certainly in our churches, is middle class, might it not simply be the case that we are letting one culture’s understanding of rudeness dictate another’s? Might we not explain those working class folks who do find these things rude to either be the product of aspiration – aspiring to a different class and adopting its mores – or assimilation, as many working class people have to do when they join predominantly middle class churches that hold their cultural norms in contempt?

Some of that contempt was clearly on display. Some suggested that working class people in particular were literally addicted to TV. Little evidence was brought forward, other than that some people don’t like you asking them to turn off their TV. Let’s be honest, even middle class people recognise telling people what to do in their own homes is not generally well received and might be regarded as rude itself. Others insisted that working class people must, en masse, have some sort of attention deficit problem such that they cannot wrench themselves away from their TVs. Others still insisted that it was inevitably the result of people who simply can’t be bothered to raise their own children. It amazes me that people say these sorts of things, out loud, and still wonder why working class people are particularly underrepresented in our churches! Even a number of middle class people read these comments and found them so judgemental they worried how they would be viewed if they ever went to churches where these attitudes were on display. But underlying them all was an assumption that these matters are objective despite nobody doing anything to actually mount that case before merely saying it.

The problem with this is that rudeness is so evidently culturally defined. Discourteous behaviour differs dramatically from culture to another. You don’t have to spend very much time in other cultures to find yourself doing things that you have always insisted were matters of politeness only to discover you are considered extremely rude for doing them.

In my church, which has people from a fairly wide range of backgrounds and cultures, I outline some examples of how that has happened to me before here. In that post, I outline what happened when one of my Iranian brothers thought I was being rude because I didn’t invite myself round to his house without a prior invitation. I explained, in British culture, it is generally seen as rude to invite yourself to somebody’s house. I had, however, invited him to my house and he had come, but he had not invited me back to his house for a meal. He thought I was rude for not inviting myself round to his house uninvited, it felt a little rude that he hadn’t invited me over to his house having already been invited over to mine. The point here is that both of us were doing what we would normally do and were actively aiming not to be rude! What is rude is not evidently objective and transcultural, it is determined culturally. There is nothing inherently rude about either approach, but what is seen to be rude is determined by the culture you come from.

My working class scouse grandparents always had the TV on when we went to visit them. My working class family also always had the TV on. They did not feel rude leaving it on – it actually greased the wheels of our conversation or allowed us to sit quietly without any awkwardness – and we didn’t feel anybody was being rude by having it on. Sometimes, we would go and ask to turn it on if it was off and they didn’t mind that either. This was normal. But according to those who have set themselves up as the official arbiters of rudeness, none of us should have dared do that and we were all being dreadfully obnoxious. The irony being, the only people who would be considered rude in this scenario – especially by my very polite grandparents – is the person sticking their oar in telling them what they can and can’t do with patrician glee.

The point in all these scenarios – and I can think of many others – is this: who gets to determine what is rude? Should my grandparents be able to tell the younger middle-class finger-waggers they’re being disrespectful to their elders or can the higher classes tell the lower ones that they are objectively rude because their culture says so? Can I tell my Iranian pal his culture is wrong and mine is right? On what ground can I do that? He’s in my country? Only, it’s also his country now, isn’t it? Maybe his feelings should trump my feelings on the matter? Or maybe, we just have to accept that rudeness is necessarily culturally determined. We can say something is rude all we like, but it is only actually rude within our particular culture. Even then, what some people consider rude within our culture isn’t actually considered rude by most people and might just be a matter of preference.

Of course, there are some biblical principles to consider here. There are biblical principles of kindness and hospitality. But I think those very principles are precisely why we cannot, and should not, insist on this objective claim to rudeness. If we do that, we are going to insist on our way – which is culturally determined – as the expense of being kind and showing proper hospitality to people who come from a different culture. We may even make unkind and improper judgements about people’s cultures – not least of the kind I saw on display recently towards working class people – simply because it does not match our own culture. These things necessarily cut against showing kindness, respect and offering hospitality.

The arguments that did hold water in the great TV on/off debate of ’23 were those who did not root their case in culture, but in preference. So, somebody said ‘what if a deaf person who struggled with background noise came round?’ I would hope kindness would prevail and someone would turn the TV off under those circumstances. Not because it is culturally rude to leave it on, or sinful to do so, but because it is inconsiderate for that particular person and they have a need you can meet. But even if someone isn’t deaf, they just prefer the TV off and find it easier to talk without it on. Again, the biblical principles of kindness and preferring other’s needs above our own, I would hope would lead us to turn it off. The argument that lands is not one that insists my culture is right and your is wrong, that you are objectively rude and I am not because my culture says so, it is the argument that says we both have personal preferences and I would like to serve you by meeting them.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with these things, that only seemed to cut one way. Working class people – or even non-working class people – who prefer the TV to remain on for any number of reasons, were always to be the ones who give way to the effectively cultural demand of those who would rather it was off. It seems preferring other’s needs is important when you need to prefer mine, but not if I am to prefer yours. Some even went as far as to say it was inappropriate, dishonouring and disrespectful if the pastor comes round not to turn it off. Maybe pastors should stop being so arrogant and demanding people kowtow to them and their preferences out of some self-important sense of their right to be honoured. Honour is other’s to give, not yours to demand. I am amazed at the lack of self-awareness that calls other people rude and yet makes such comments. This hardly smacks of the humility that is supposed to characterise pastors.

Indeed, as those who are meant to be mature in the faith, is it not incumbent on pastors to model preferring other’s needs above their own rather than demanding their church members only ever give in to the pastor’s preferences? If that is true, ought not the pastor to say – though he may prefer the TV off – if somebody might rather it remain on, to let them do so? And rather than haranguing people for being rude, perhaps recognise that rudeness is culturally determined and maybe this person comes from a different culture with another understanding of what is culturally appropriate. If we really can’t hear or concentrate or whatever, maybe just say that rather than insist this person is being rude and ought to know better. Maybe the issue is ultimately with us and not with them.

Given that scripture does not expressly rule on it, we ought to be a little careful about binding consciences where it doesn’t. Maybe rather than insisting someone is being rude, we might do better to recognise rudeness is culturally defined. Maybe if we were a little more careful on these things, we might wonder less why so few working class people are coming into our churches?