Cross-cultural patronisation

Returning to the US after a week in France really slammed home how idiotically patronising people here can be. I did get a lot of stares in France, but absolutely no comments. Wherever I went, I was treated in an completely professional, neutral manner. In the first four hours back in the States, I was asked what was wrong with me, I was chided (jokingly) for speeding, I was complimented on my wheelchair handling skills, and a security officer offered to pray for me. Pretty damn incredible. What makes people think these comments are a) original, b) welcome or c) polite?

Here’s my working theory: here in the States, we have a cultural habit of superficial friendliness, which includes smiling at strangers and making small talk. I suspect that people just don’t know what to say to someone using a wheelchair or crutches, but they feel they have to come up with some pleasantry, and since awareness of the disability is the newest thing in the brain, a joke about speeding comes out before a comment about the weather.



  1. Kezzykat

    Hi Katja,
    No consolation, but it is the same here in the lil ole UK. I use a crutch and my mobility is getting worse and I am SICk to death of people asking repeatedly (thats right they figure a new day a new answer!) what i “did”…Has it happens I didn’t exactly DO anything…and then there are those who think it helpful to invite me to a healing mass…….

    best wishes Katja, love reading your blog and what a beautiful house you have too :)


  2. Katja (Post author)

    Thanks, Kezzykat.

    And here I am, remitting, and every day somebody asks what me what I “did” to get better. Argh!

  3. Kezzykat

    Hi Katja,

    thats gotta suck too! I guess that is frustrating the masses out there it must be confusing to see varying levels of impairment..

    Glad France was a good trip!



    Superficial friendliness and small talk are a geographical oddity?

  5. Katja (Post author)

    I think they’re a cultural norm (or not).


    Apparently there’s no small talk or eye contact in finland.


    those fish make reading comments hard to read.

  8. Katja (Post author)

    Is this better?

  9. mdmhvonpa

    Not sure which is worse; Too much superficial kindness or too much intentional avoidance.

  10. Scott Rains

    Welcome back.
    When I was first paralyzed in high school my good friends took me aside once and asked me what it was really like being a new quad – “Is it hard being stared at all the time?” The question made me realize that it was being ignored; being forced to function outside the regular rules of body space in conversations; being, literally, looked down on that took a bigger toll on me.
    I love the terms for pre- and post- volunteer year training that the Jesuit Volunteer Corps uses: “Orientation” and “Dis-Orientation.” Welcome back home to disorientation! I always figure that the vertigo of homecoming is the result of having traveled with an openness to being transformed.

  11. Patricia Tryon

    What you observed about interactions between strangers is one of the things I loved best about being in Paris. Parisians have _the_best_ social boundaries. Wouldn’t dream of talking loudly enough to be overheard in a restaurant. Sometimes it seems to me that Americans pitch their voices deliberately so that it is impossible NOT to eavesdrop.

    OTOH, it is de rigeur to hold open a Metro door for the person behind you. Like that would happen here. Ha!


    “is this better?”

    – a little. still not great.


    much better now.

  14. Eliza

    Yup, I’ve complained about the very same in my blog quite a bit. I’m not sure it’s superficial niceness, as I’m in NYC, and it always strikes me as ESPECIALLY odd here, as people AVOID interaction at all costs, UNLESS you’re a crip. Then, suddenly, it seems, you’re fair game. It almost makes me want to start mugging people, just so their assumption that a crip must be safe can be proved wrong. The “What’d You Do?” ones especially bug me, since it’s so often not only nosy but said with such an expectation of a juicy accident story, like they’re anticipating some voyeuristic fulfillment from hearing about it. Sometimes it’s cool and people are obviously just curious and interested, and I don’t mind so much. But I don’t need to be someone’s entertainment. (Nor do I need for them to pray for me).


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