We all judge other people based on the values we hold and our beliefs about the best way to do things. This becomes glaringly clear when you travel to another culture, and everyone around you has different values and beliefs. When you interact with people who do things completely differently from you, you can chose to accept that, or you can think the worst of them for it. When you're dealing with heavy issues like freedom and equality and the like, you have to face the fact that maybe, what you've always thought was a basic human desire and right might actually just be a cultural construct.
But not every cross-cultural conflict you face has deep meaning and weighty consequences. Sometimes, the things that we use to judge other people are completely meaningless, and yet they're the things that create rifts or prejudices that harm our respect for others.
I'm thinking in particular about the issue of manners. Manners are completely subjective and culturally based. For example, in America, it's rude to eat meat off the bone with your fingers (as my mother is constantly reminding me.) In Kazakhstan, however, it's completely fine to eat with your fingers, and even expected that you will eat beshfarmak with your hands. In America, it's invasive to walk into someone's room without knocking; in Kazakhstan, if you need something in the room, or need to talk to the person, why would you bother waiting until they're done changing? My host sister in Almaty walked into my room on my birthday to give me my present. I was standing in my bra, searching for a shirt, but she was completely unfazed. Nonplussed, I took the proffered present and set it on the bed, then grabbed the nearest shirt and slipped it over my head. I was bright red with embarrassment, but she saw nothing awkward in the situation.
At that point, I could have chosen to think her rather rude. If someone did that in America, I would wonder what was wrong with them. But it would be unfair and baseless for me to make the same judgment about her. No one ever told her it was rude to walk into someone's room without knocking, even if they are changing. She has no cultural reason to not walk in.
I found myself in an even more superficial situation recently. I began to notice just how much people here slurp their soup. And the more I noticed, the more the sound annoyed me. Soon, though, I stepped back and thought about the judgment I was making. To put it in perspective, I thought about the week before, when my host mom had told me that I always set my mug down too loudly on the table. In a similar situation to mine, the more she noticed, the more the sound annoyed her. She responded by telling me that only people who have not been well brought up set their dishes down heavily on the table. Then she showed me how to gently set my dishes down so they didn't make any noise. She wondered aloud, hadn't my mother taught me anything?
Of course, my mother taught me lots of things, like not to eat with my hands and to knock when I enter a room and not to slurp my soup. She taught me lots of inconsequential, meaningless things that nonetheless tell everyone in my culture whether or not I am “well-brought up.” It's only when I cross cultural boundaries and am faced with a completely different set of inconsequential, meaningless things that people judge you by that I have to face the fact that they are inconsequential and meaningless. And yet people still judge you by them. The burden is on me, of course, to adapt, since if I don't, everyone here will wonder just what my mother was thinking. But it makes me reevaluate the lines we draw based on shallow things like clothes styles or grammar or manners. Who are we to judge people based on our own set of cultural values, when they might not even be aware that that set of values exists?