A time and a place for everything
The first time I heard the phrase “there is a time and a place for everything,” I was very young. Little did I know that the experience behind this saying would be a key insight into understanding how to negotiate culture.
One of my earliest encounters with the application of this phrase came when we moved to the United States. My parents were jazz musicians and my young life revolved around traveling, being around music and going to concerts. I loved concerts because the audiences at each new location brought a different energy into the mix. I really loved it when the listeners enjoyed the same songs that I did. It was easy to know when someone in the audience appreciated something because in the free jazz community it is customary to clap or call out during a piece when a part of the performance was particularly moving or showed merit. This might be comparable to a football fan who is free to stand up at the stadium or shout when something exciting has just happened on the field. Acknowledging the audience’s presence was a practice I grew up with and still value today.
After touring Europe, when we moved to the United States, there was a lot that changed. Although I was used to being in different countries, the dynamic of time and place had different rules. A great example of this was my first time at a concert without my parents. We were on a first grade field trip at a lavish outdoor concert at Lincoln Center in my mom’s hometown of New York City. It was my first classical concert and I loved it! I had never heard an upright bass played with a bow in that way before. I swooned with those low tones. The horns popped in a way that was new to me and the deep bellies of the drums kept time in a way that confused and fascinated me. Then the first violinist played a wicked solo rigid with passion, which in my mind was surely worthy of appreciation. I sat at the edge of my seat, catcalled, clapped and woohooed as loud as I could. I assumed that the other 500 or so guests at Lincoln Center had undoubtedly enjoyed the soloist too. Instead, the entire audience glared at me in disapproval, shamming me with their eyes until I felt like I wanted to sink into the Earth and disappear. I was so embarrassed that I could no longer enjoy the concert.
Perhaps the worst part of this experience was that I didn’t understand why I had been collectively shamed. My teachers were unfamiliar with the audience culture I had come from and no one from my family was there on the field trip. I was utterly swimming in confusion and felt disconnected from everyone around me.
Cultural norms for classical and jazz concerts were similar in their set up, but required different behavior from their audiences. Based on these norms, the timing of my applause was off and while everyone let me know this was not the place for it, no one was able to explain why. I was frustrated and felt things too big for me to articulate back then. It didn’t seem fair since I wasn’t intentionally misbehaving.
Without cultural orientation, I couldn’t negotiate the difference in time and place of my own behavior. My free jazz culture had prepared me for one situation but not another. It taught me to truly enjoy the nuances of music. That is a treasure no one can separate from me. However, my outlet for that joy had been disrupted and left me isolated for the rest of the concert.
Over the years I have been able to cultivate the ability to identify cultural norms and adjust. By making minor adjustments to the time and place of a certain behavior, new synchronicities become available and I can get back on track and feel connected with those around me. I have been to many classical concerts since then and I have learned to keep my enthusiasm to myself until the end of a piece. Sometimes I even wait to clap until others do. By doing this a place in listening culture, outside of jazz, becomes accessible to me again. It may not be what I am accustomed to, but my goal is to enjoy every concert and connect to the culture happening around me.
Negotiating culture successfully means regaining access to all the things we love, sometimes, with just a few minor adjustments for time and place.