There is a technician in the lab who is quintessentially German. She knows this, she is proud of it, but she feels the cultural differences between herself and the Mediterraneans with whom she works starkly. We speak often of the differences between our cultures over lunch, grinning at how differently we react to certain situations, but the other day she told us a story attempting to illustrate how, in this one respect, she and her husband defied their culture and were actually more similar to ours. Unwittingly, she actually demonstrated that the difference she referred to was greater than she had anticipated.
She has a three year old daughter, who is in nursery school. She told us how her teachers praised her to her father. “She is a model child”, they told him. “She follows every rule, and cares deeply about them. If she sees another child breaking a rule, she will scold him, and then call our attention to it, telling us immediately if one of her peers breaks a rule. You should be so proud to have such an obedient and well behaved child!” She told us how her husband was not so happy to hear this, and how funny it was that he did not find her behavior to be as praise-worthy as her culture deemed it to be. She laughed at how disappointed he was to have a daughter who would be so bossy.
I, and the Greek woman she told this story to, were unimpressed. “It’s not that she’s bossy”, we said, “it’s that she’s a narc. Your kid is a narc, and that is not good”.
This story took me back to when I was in first grade. My teacher had devised the concept of a “tattle toad”, to whom any child who had an urge to tattle could go to instead of her. I provided the toad, a stuffed frog dressed in a prince outfit. As I felt a certain responsibility for having brought in the toad, compounded with the fact that I was subconsciously copying my Mother’s habit of giving advice to anyone who would listen, I had taken it upon myself to provide a “voice” to the tattle toad. Whenever I saw someone approach it, I would crouch behind it, respond to the “tattle” with some well-meaning advice on how to diffuse whatever situation had brought the child to it.
My teacher immediately scolded me harshly for this. She seemed to be under the impression that I was being nosy. She told me that the other children’s problems were none of my business, that I was not to spy on them and listen to what they had to say about others, and that she did not want to hear me tattle to herself or anyone else about everyone else’s business or quarrels. I was shamed, as I had no way of explaining in my 6-year old’s way that it was never my intention to tell anyone what the children told the toad, that I merely thought that telling an inanimate object about your problems wasn’t going to do anything to resolve them, that I had thought that by providing the toad it was my responsibility to give advice and make my peers feel better, that I did not intend to judge anyone or break anyone’s confidence. I stayed away from the toad after that.
In my culture, tattling was neither praised nor encouraged. The mere fact that my first grade teacher saw fit to invent the “tattle toad” is a clear indication of this. She was clearly sick and tired of having children come to her and tattle on their classmates. That is not to say that they wanted children to break the rules. Rather, if you saw a peer break the rules, you were supposed to explain to them why the rule existed and why they should follow it, but running for a teacher was supposed to be reserved for serious things, like potentially dangerous behavior. Tattling was seen as little better than backstabbing, like a lack of loyalty, and a hindrance to forming bonds and ties with your peers. If a child went to a teacher, or a parent, to tell them that so and so was breaking the rule, the adult would usually have a mixed response: an acknowledgement that so and so should follow the rules, yes, but you going behind so and so’s back to tell me is also not right. You should go and tell so and so not to break the rule, and why. If so and so doesn’t listen, or does something that could get them hurt, or hurts you, then come and tell me.
Before I heard our technician’s story, I had no idea that there existed a culture in which not only was the “don’t tattle on your friends” speech not given, but one in which tattling on a rule breaker would actually get praise. She, also, told the story as if every nursery school in the world would be pleased and praise a tattling child. She did not know that she was actually highlighting another big cultural difference between us. As she had never heard the “don’t tattle on your friends” speech, and was merely content with being quietly disappointed that her daughter was a tattle-tale, we outlined it briefly for her.
“Don’t shame her, but don’t let her be a narc either”, we told her. “If you want her to make friends, try to talk her out of it. Nobody likes the narc”.