May 16

Keep smiling? – or Tell the Truth?

“What is on My Heart is on My Mouth!”Maze of cultural expectations

“Keep Smiling!”

“Who is the Boss?”

In the maze of cultural expectations


When I first came to the US, it was definitely comforting that people were polite to me and to each other. They kept smiling and kept sending encouraging messages to me such as that: they liked my accent, or my English was good enough to launch my practice. It was really reassuring and helpful.


“Keep smiling!” is the complete opposite of what I experienced growing up in Hungary. I’ve heard millions of times the old Hungarian saying: “What is on My Heart is on My Mouth.” Frequently, it is a simple expectation being honest in everyday conversation and sharing even negative opinions as well. Other times, it is the excuse of hurting other people’s feelings by disclosing negative evaluations and judgment. Naturally I am not a fan of the latter.


Bragging about difficulties is almost expected in Hungary. Even people living in the upper classes find reasons to complain, not to mention the fact circling around in media almost with the overtone of pride that Hungary lost all of its battles in the last 300 years.


There is another telltale proverb:” Hungarians cheer up with crying.”  I’ve never been impressed by these messages.


Acknowledging and encouraging was absolutely refreshing after a trip to Germany While there, I heard many times: “Sie Mussen Deutsch lernen!” (You have to learn German!) as if I haven’t talked in German with them. The message is clear: your German is not good enough. (You are not good enough?) Quite discouraging, isn’t it?

Not only that, many encounters with neighbors, strangers, and first meeting with acquaintances begin with a sting. Your answer – or rather the way you answer – decides for decades where will you stand in the pecking order.


I was especially uncomfortable with it. I prefer symmetrical-reciprocal relationships, but this start does not leave me any other options than fight or flight. I could be either dominant or submissive, but there is no easy option for cooperation.


Therefore arriving to America, I enjoyed pretty much the convenient: “How are you doing!” – “I‘m doing fine.” –  “Excellent.” – type of conversations. I still remember the astonished face of a cashier woman when we answered her question with details of how we were doing today.


Once, a woman happily told me that her boyfriend was moving from  another state over  the weekend in order to be with her. The following week I saw her with cried out red eyes. I asked what happened – sure enough he did not come – but the kind lady stated that she is all right. – “What?” – I thought. – “You are deceived, you are betrayed, you are disappointed, you are devastated, you cried alone three nights in a row and you tell me that you are all right? Why?”


Then I’ve heard children falling off in the playground, hitting their knees or butts, crying. In response, their parents tell them: “You’re OK!” – What? No, he is not OK! He fell off, he got scared, he hit himself and needs someone to name him the feelings and comfort him. No, he is not OK until he gets it!


Along the way I’ve learned – sometimes with painful experiences – that the expectation in this situation is to: “Keep smiling. (No matter what.)” By the way; nowhere else did I see that many fake smiles.


I try to comprehend: why do we want to forcibly cram down the throat the negative feelings into the person already experiencing them?


The first reason is quite obvious and suffering for a while from the opposite, I cannot agree more: don’t put a burden on the shoulder of our friends with our whining. I’m OK with that to a certain point. Don’t overload everybody with the least significant struggle of our lives. Let’s chose carefully with whom and what to share.


The other reason might be full of good intention: we want the other person’s pain to disappear; we want him to be OK. With the magical thinking saying you’re OK, they might realize themselves that they are OK.

This is a mistake: and a very dangerous one. Every problem solving begins with identifying the problem. It’s not instant. Sometimes we need to think about it. Some difficult situations need investigation from more sides and fresh perspectives.  It needs elaboration. Without identifying the problem, we have no opportunity to solve it. Therefore it is basically important to be able to talk about our problems with our friends, colleagues or our acquaintances.


The other back side of keeping the negative feelings inside is that they can turn against us. It can evolve into depression, hopelessness, alienation, anxiety. It can manifest itself into bodily illnesses; it can cause a myriad of other psychological issues as well.


But maybe the third disadvantage hit me the most: what type of relationship is it when I cannot speak about my difficulties and suffering?


Superficial. We lose the advantage of social support. We cannot share our thoughts and true feelings with anyone. We stay alone with our pain. We think about when and where and with whom to go out because it is so hard to maintain composure in times of distress. We avoid our acquaintances in order to stay in secrecy. We get alienated, and then we suffer from loneliness.


All of society has worked out its rules on how to handle love, joy, loss, grief, changes of life, and tragedies. It’s all social. If we don’t allow sharing the negative feelings, we run the risk of making ourselves sick: psychologically and biologically.


My personal solution: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I try to find the golden middle ground. Not too much complaining, but no pretending if possible. Finally, we should be working toward equal cooperation instead of vertical hierarchy and control.


What’s your golden middle ground?