Am I Being Rude?

Look what I just read at J.’s blog:

Interesting…when someone’s sitting in a room, and someone else comes into the room, who speaks first?

If there is a clear divide in status, who speaks first? The “higher” or “lower” status individual?

What happens if the two individuals come from different cultural realities (not ethnicities per se, but just sort of “how one was brought up”), and in the culture of the higher-status person it is the lower-status who socially is obliged to speak first, and in the culture of the lower-status person it is obliged of that person to not speak to the higher-status person until spoken to?

After the awkward silence, I mean.

(Just had one of those moments. I am currently the lower-status person, and I am trained that, in such a moment, one waits to speak until addressed by the other. )

Is this true? Is it impolite to start talking first to a person of higher status? Because I do that all the time and I never had the slightest idea I was being rude. Are there any cultural differences in this area that anybody has observed?

19 thoughts on “Am I Being Rude?”

  1. hmmm well sure prior to say world war II in america in certain parts of the country and among certain classes yes, see and not be heard was the rule, just like you introduce the younger person to the older not vice versa “may I present young person A”


    1. It’s good to know that I don’t have yet another rule of social behavior to learn. As it is, it’s very confusing to remember what needs to be done when and in what context and what response one needs to expect.


      1. i really don’t think anyone under like 90 would even know and/or care. my mom is an etiquette stickler but we are talking like from the era when children referred to adults as ma’am and sir and blacks had to get off the sidewalk when whites came walking towards them, so eff it I say.


        1. I still refer to strangers as sir & ma’am. For me, it’s a sign of respect, which in my worldview is granted to someone until they prove they don’t deserve it.

          As for any other ‘customs’, the offended party has a responsibility to tell you that you’ve offended them. How else can you be expected to adjust (or explain) your behaviour?


          1. “I still refer to strangers as sir & ma’am. For me, it’s a sign of respect, which in my worldview is granted to someone until they prove they don’t deserve it.”

            -I do, too. for me, it’s very strange that I should call older people or the Dean with their first name. In my culture this wouldn’t have been possible. I’m still having trouble adopting this custom.


  2. I’m not great with social cues, so maybe it’s just me, but…huh? I really don’t think that hard about who talks first. As far as I’m concerned, it’s whichever person has something to say. Or whichever person is more extroverted.


  3. It would depend on the context. Speaking first to your boss in a business meeting is different from speaking first to the person at a party. I remember at Trinity College that the professors sitting at the high table in the dining hall or having a sherry in the Rhodes room (with all the pictures of Rhode’s scholars surrounding you) would speak first according to an unwritten rule.


  4. It’s a dominance thing – like sitting at the head of a table or keeping someone standing when everyone else is seated. However, as with so many of these unwritten social signals, they vary considerably from culture to culture and situation to situation. In the UK it tends towards the person with greater social stature being the initiator – it’s culturally not done to push yourself upon the attention of your ‘betters’ although it is a fading custom. We’re like China in this way, but less so – they are very concious of social ranking, higher to lower and who takes precedence. I have often found with junior Chinese employees that if they respect you they will efface themselves to the point where even to English sensibilities it is off putting, obsequious seeming. Of course in some cultures it’s the junior who must speak first, as the seeker they must be the initiator, a role which acknowledges their weaker position.
    I’ve seen a few standoffs as described precisely due to that kind of culture clash – one which was rather amusing for me in my role as silent observer and note taker – a junior employee was called onto the carpet for some minor misdeed, and awaited in silence as was the custom in his country, for the boss to speak. However, the boss was waiting for him to speak up, as the inferior and to penitently confess his failing. The silence stretched on and on, neither making eye contact, boss because the junior should seek it, and the junior because it would be rude to seek it – and there was me, seated to the side watching them and trying so hard not to crack up.
    Eventually, the boss cracked, but did not address the junior – technically I was of more or less equal status so he could address me without losing face – so he asked me if I would like refreshments! The delay what with the secretary coming in with coffee allowed me to think of a way to break the deadlock, but it was so, so funny.


    1. This is a hilarious story! This is one of those things that makes me really glad to be autistic. I normally never even notice that there is any tension in the room and just keep talking about myself and stuff that interests me.


  5. Hi, I just saw this. 🙂 Thanks for bringing it over here.

    That upbringing thing for me was never hard and fast, it was just What We Did, and I honestly don’t encounter situations where I feel that pressure very often. This was just weird, two students (myself and another) sitting in the office, and our teacher walked in, We both looked up and smiled, waiting for some acknowledgement or eye contact or something indicating “normal social interaction” and received none. It was weird. He went to his desk, got something, and started to walk out of the room; as he walked, he asked us, “And how are you doing?” and was gone before we could answer.

    In that moment, I was like, okay, I thought he was just walking in to do what he needed to do and we know he’s not real sociable, but was he waiting for us to speak to him and were we just very rude?

    (I have almost no natural acquisition of social skills; I have to learn them all. This was just…odd. Plus it was the first time it occurred to me to wonder if Dr. Intimidating Department Head Living Legend Guy might be…shy.)

    I speak to people outside of my status level all the time too, and it’s normally fairly comfortable, but there are a lot of tiny social cues present when I do that, and there’s almost invariably at least the teeniest flick of eye contact that seems to serve as sort of permission or “this is okay” or something. If I receive no cues at all, I find I am powerless to act. It’s weird.


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