Cultural Third Rails

Éric is from Québec.  He was very excited about income sharing community as an alternative to the previous IT jobs he had had in the main stream.  Hard working, handy and politically progressive the early money was on Acorn enthusiastically accepting him as a member.  Turns out that would have been a losing bet.

Some signals don't translate well.

Some signals don’t translate well.

It started with touching.  In Montréal and other parts of Québec people put their hands lightly on other peoples shoulders when they talk to them.  Acorn is clear in our information to visitors that there is a very strong consent culture here and you can’t just touch people without asking them first, even in this seemingly simple and harmless way.  We are supposed to stress this in our introductory tour of the community as well, but it appears Éric never got this tour.

So as he did in his country, Éric held peoples shoulders when he was talking to them, until someone told him that he needed to stop this.  At first he did not understand why, this is quite different from where he comes from, and he even made a couple of mistakes after being told.  But when one member got really upset with him for this, he realized that he needed to change his behavior to match our cultural agreements.

Room privacy is sacred

Room privacy is paramount

Then there was the issue of rooms.  Éric was helping with the electrical repairs connected to the arson recovery.  We were just about to buy the final supplies to complete the electrical in Heartwood.  Éric asked if he could go into one members room and they replied “Fuliano is sleeping in there, don’t waked them up.”  He thought this meant he should avoid waking the person in the room and gather the timely information in a very quiet way.  Only to walk in on someone very surprised about his presence there.

Éric appreciates the strong culture of trust.  What he missed is that part of creating this culture here is that there is rigid cultural zoning.  You can’t go into someone’s room unless they give permission explicitly.  He thought he was being helpful.  Here again it took a couple of mistakes before he realized that this was actually quite a big deal to people here.

It is not as dense as Hong Kong, but there are similarities

It is not as dense as Hong Kong, but there are similarities

Commune life is dense.  Even in a relatively small place like Acorn (with 30 members and a dozen guests and interns) there are people in public space almost all the time.   I am oft surprised at the 5 AM rush hour which takes place in Heartwood, with some folks getting up for morning chores, others going to bed after a long night of partying and still other sleep anarchists who might be in the middle of their temporally shifted day.

One of the most frequently cited reasons for leaving community is wanting to have more privacy and more independent control of your things.  We try to accommodate these needs by having exclusive norms around people’s rooms.  Mala tells a story of playing tag with a bunch of small Twin Oaks kids.  It was quite a lively game with running around everywhere and yelling.  Mala ran into her room to escape being tagged and every kid ran and then stopped abruptly at the threshold to her room.  They each asks “Can i come in?”

Navigating the commune culture can be tricky

Navigating the commune culture can be tricky

There were other small problems with Éric which ultimately derailed his application.  Acorn uses the selection algorithm “If it is not a clear ‘yes’, then it is not a ‘yes'”.  Most people were confident that Eric would learn from these mistakes and not repeat them.  But the collection of them combined with other discomforts made him joining not a clear yes.  Some members were frustrated, because they felt like we were not clear enough.  But in the end it was Éric‘s choice to leave, he did not want anyone to feel uncomfortable about him being there.  Most people would not have seen this and pushed for what they wanted.  It is another thing i appreciate about Eric.

Acorn for it’s part is putting together a list of these cultural third rails (as in “you touch, you die’), so that others can learn from both ours and Éric‘s mistakes.

Building trust is very tricky work.  Strong agreements around receiving consent for any type of touching and clearly defined personal space are part of feeling safe in a dense place without locks.  Adding to this confusion is that we are a very physical group with people touching each other all the time and breezing into each others rooms.  What Éric (and others before him) could not see is that these behaviors had been negotiated before he arrived, they can’t be presumed.

Eric and Audrey painting Heartwood at Acorn after the fire - Circa 2013

Eric and Audrey painting Heartwood at Acorn after the fire – Circa 2013

Originally, i changed the name and country of origin in this story, but when i sent it to Éric, he said he would prefer the story be told with his name and his land (not Poland which i had selected since it has similar casual touching as a cultural norm).

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

7 responses to “Cultural Third Rails”

  1. moonraven222 says :

    That’s way too bad. I really liked Eric.

  2. Nonny says :

    In some ways, it’s kind of amazing to me that this is what “consent culture” means to you. I grew up in a dense American city and I think some touching while talking is normal, as long as nobody involved indicates discomfort. What matters to me is that people specify where their lines are, and that people immediately respect lines once they’re drawn. The way you’ve described your situation, you all didn’t specify your lines, and are mostly uninterested in whether or not he would have respected them once they were pointed out.

    For someone who’s used to a little bit of casual touching being possible in the world (arguably a world that needs more caring touch in it rather than more fear), it feels more accurate to call yours a “do not touch” culture. I never would have guessed that “consent culture” would mean don’t gently touch someone you’re talking to, any more than I would think I need to ask to look at someone or say hello to someone – and with each of these, I would refrain from doing it upon receiving a signal, whether the signal came before or after the action.

    I am not judging your culture, just saying you might want to get your messages a lot clearer if it’s important to you not to lose diverse communards.

    • paxus says :

      Nonny – There were failings on both sides. It is very clear in the stuff we send out to people and it is supposed to be stressed a visitors initial tour of Acorn, but Eric had actually been here several times before, so we failed in giving him a proper initial tour.

      I like our quite strict consent culture, in part because it means that people who have had a really bad time with being run over by the mainstreams more relaxed consent culture can feel safe here. This is not a small thing. It is possible for us to have casual toplessness, for example, which is both desirable and liberating, it can only happen when members feel like they are not being objectified and are safe.

      And part of being open about our mistakes is so that we stop making them.

  3. dbmamaz says :

    Interesting to me – my husband is also from Quebec and sometimes the little things can really surprise us. Touching is not one of them tho – his family does the two-kiss greeting, but he hates it. He is surprise-touch-averse and i have to warn him every time I’m going to touch him outside of bed.

    However, we did have a problem early on when he told my pre-teen daughter that a new pair of pants made her rear look good. We politely ignored the comment, so he repeated it. It was a big, big problem which I dont think she ever got over. He insisted that in his culture, that was perfectly normal. But to us, it was crossing a boundary.

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