No good deed goes unpunished–especially when it’s a screw-up

Or, How not to be a multiculturalist

In my work in software localization, I frequently exchange emails with colleagues around in the world in which we announce to each other that we’ll be “OOTO” (out of the office) for various public holidays. Since lots of holidays here are unfamiliar there and vice versa, some of us have adopted a custom of not only announcing our upcoming absences but also giving a brief description of the holiday.

For example, my colleague and good friend Kyoko in Japan recently explained:

Our office will be closed next Monday, 9th October.

Taiiku-no-hi(Health-Sports Day)

October 10 is Taiiku-no-hi. It is to commemorate the opening of the Tokyo Olympics on October 10, 1964, and since 1966 it has been a national holiday. Its purpose is to familiarize with sports and nurture physical and mental health. Sports flourish in autumn because the weather is good, but, especially on taiiku-no-hi, numerous school and regional athletic meets and sports tourneys are held.

Another time she wrote:

Our office will be closed tomorrow, 3rd November.

Culture Day

Day for celebrating love of freedom and equality, and promoting culture. (Commemorates the promulgation, on November3, 1946, of the Constitution. Prior to 1945, this day was celebrated as the birth day of the Emperor Meiji.)

On Culture Day we do not have special food and drink. these days are just national holidays, so people go to sight seeing trip on these days.

Those who know me well will not be surprised to learn that when I send these kinds of notes, I attempt to make them amusing as well as informative. Here are a few of the descriptions I’ve sent in the past:

I just wanted to let you know that Monday is a holiday for us in the US. It’s Labor Day. I’ve never really understood what it’s for. I think it’s something about labor unions, but what it means mostly is barbecues, picnics, little trips to the lake, and “white sales” where the department stores have big sales on bedsheets, pillowcases, towels, and so on. (I have no idea what linens have to do with labor unions!)

Labor Day is of course a celebration of the oft-punished fights that labor unions have made to give us, among other things, the eight-hour work day and the five-day work week—no minor accomplishment. Most people recognize that today’s labor unions are far from perfect, but as a member of both management (in the corporate world) and labor (as a two-card-carrying member of two musicians’ locals), I think I can agree with my dad’s analysis: there is plenty of blame to go around. Usually corporations bring their labor problems on themselves by showing too little human regard for the employees who keep them in business, and labor unions in turn bring problems on themselves through excess and corruption. These are typically exacerbated by a failure on each side to communicate reasonably and openly with the other. Someday I’ll write here about some interesting examples of this kind of thing that I’ve observed during my career.

The next year I offered a slightly improved description:

Labor Day is ostensibly about honoring labor unions, but it is really about barbecuing and buying discounted bed linens. It is also the official end of the season in which white shoes are considered acceptable—-between Memorial Day and Labor Day is the rule. I don’t know anybody who has white shoes anymore—-except for athletic shoes, which don’t count. All the same, I’m happy to take a day off to barbecue.

Apparently this holiday is of some interest to me, because the next year I got still more explicit:

The holiday is Labor Day. Originally Labor Day was intended to celebrate the sacrifices and achievements made by labor unions and labor organizers. American productivity and prosperity have been due to plain hard work, of course, but it is perhaps more notable now to celebrate the ways organized labor changed working conditions, especially for blue-collar labor. Thanks to labor unions, we now take a five-day work week, vacation, minimum wage, overtime pay, basic benefits, and an expectation of safe working conditions for granted.

But in truth, most people rarely give a second thought to the origin of this holiday and instead treat it as any other three-day weekend— a chance to have a barbecue, visit distant relatives, or catch up on household chores. Department stores traditionally have a Labor Day White Sale, in which bed and bath linens are discounted, but nobody knows why. Labor Day also marks the end of the season in which polite ladies and gentlemen are allowed to wear white shoes: tradition dictates that white shoes are worn between Memorial Day and Labor Day only. (I believe exceptions are made for tennis, croquet, and other activities for which white attire is expected.)

Speaking of barbecues, here was one year’s take on the 4th of July:

next Friday, the 4th of July, is a holiday for the US team. If you’re interested, here are my thoughts on the holiday:

We usually call it “the 4th of July,” but its official name is Independence Day. This holiday celebrates the North American colonists’ signing of a Declaration of Independence from England in 1776. The Declaration was an uppity letter to the King of England that said, in effect, “You aren’t being fair, so we’re not playing anymore.” Their key complaint was about “taxation without representation”: having to pay huge taxes but not having voting rights. They argued that this was so unfair that, having been snubbed in every effort to change the situation, the colonies had a right to secede from England. It was a novel argument that if your government oppresses you, you have a human right to overthrow it. Naturally, it took a big war to settle the matter, and the United States of America as we know it today didn’t actually get underway until 1788, when our Constitution was ratified. An interesting point, though, is that even after seceding from England over a disagreement about basic human rights, the writers of the Constitution forgot to include provisions for basic human rights! So, right away, they had to make ten amendments to their document, which are called the Bill of Rights. This makes me feel better about how often we have to amend our [software localization] documents! 🙂

For no particular reason that I know of, it is traditional to celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks and barbecues.

On re-reading that today, I’m wondering why it is that the US doesn’t see anything wrong with perpetuating taxation without representation in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and so on.

Anyway, this year I went all out and decided to summarize all the upcoming US holidays:

Thanksgiving is the North American holiday where we celebrate and give thanks for the harvest by eating outrageous amounts of roast turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams or sweet potatoes, pumpkin pies, and all sorts of other fattening but delicious fall vegetables on Thursday. On Friday we either lie around feeling fat or else march to the shopping malls in search of big discounts in the “black Friday” Christmas shopping frenzy. My father insists that (American) football is also a big part of the Thanksgiving tradition, but I have no idea what he’s talking about.

The history behind the holiday is even more controversial than the question of football, and Wikipedia gives a decent summary of the issues.

In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated a month earlier, closer to the actual harvest but with less emphasis on extreme consumption of its bounties and more emphasis on doing something over the long weekend.

Our offices are closed from 25dec-1jan for the winter holidays, which include Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Childermas, Hanukkah, Rosh Chodesh, Asara B’Tevet, and New Year’s Day (some of which fall outside these dates).

What many of these holidays have in common are special foods, the fast Asara b’Tevet being a notable exception. Solstice and New Year are about the sun, and Rosh Chodesh is about the moon. Christmas is both a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus and subsuming many ancient indigenous seasonal rites, and a secular holiday prompting the year’s biggest consumer spending. (As of this moment, Wikipedia’s entry for Christmas displays a curious segment declaiming, “SANTA IS THE MAN.”) Childermas is a minor related holiday. Hanukkah is a lesser Jewish holiday that commemorates Maccabees resisting Greek assimilation (or as they say, “it’s another one of those ‘they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat’ holidays;” in this case, potato pancakes). Kwanzaa is a modern secular celebration of African-American heritage marking its 40th anniversary this year.

So we reach the denouement of our story, where my attempted good deed turns out to be a total screw-up.

In my fervor to describe all these holidays in an equally-tongue-in-cheek fashion, where no religion’s holiday gets preferential descriptive treatment, I managed to come off as disdainful to all of them. One of my colleagues kindly pointed this out, to which I replied, “Disdain? I don’t disdain any of them—just football!”

He then mentioned that others might consider “reconnecting with family” to be important.

Well, of course! Duh! And particularly among the more conservative in my audience, my failure to mention this, coupled with my failure to make overt mention of the importance of any of these holidays to me and mine, had to be offensive or at least annoying, particularly to my colleagues in the American South. The South is a region of the United States that has its own cultural identity and celebrates it to a much greater degree than any other part of the country (to wit, the Culture Shock international book series has a title devoted to the South, with special chapters on how Atlanta is still different). Among its values are a strong devotion to family, church, and local community (and the many overlaps among these). So, my casual disregard of the above would be an especially good example of me putting my “damn Yankee” foot right in my mouth and halfway down my throat.

I hastened to send a postscript:

Leave it to me to forget the most obvious point! All of these holidays are REALLY about reconnecting with family and friends. I get a little fixated on the food aspect of that, because in MY family the planning, preparing, and eating of special seasonal and cultural foods are the glue that pulls us all together.

Which is of course quite true, and it’s also true that I happen to love the holidays that apply to me—especially because of the food traditions—and I’ve been inclined to adopt a few more that don’t, again because of the food. I don’t know a lot of goyim who celebrate Hanukkah and Passover, but I do, due in no small part to my love of latkes, charoset, matzoh (and -kugel and -brie), gefilte fish, and of course horseradish. I just didn’t want to write any of that, because I didn’t think my own religious affiliation was appropriate workplace comment.

The beautiful irony here is that I, the earnest multiculturalist who labored to describe a whole bunch of holidays in an ecumenical and egalitarian way so as not to offend anyone, managed to offend just about everyone. So my attempted good deed was actually a screw-up, and I got the punishment I deserved.

For what it’s worth, three West Coast colleagues who value home and family no less than I do all thought it was amusing and took no offense to the general tone, and the Southern colleague could not have been kinder in his pointing out my gaffe. He’s pretty used to me and my foibles.

Another Southern colleague who’s actually a transplant shared this:

I recently saw a magazine page with a mother holding a big platter of turkey etc. On her head was a crown of thorns a la Christ.

Certainly an apt feminist response to the reality of many of these holidays, where mothers have traditionally been expected to spend a hot and tiring day in the kitchen while their menfolk relax and watch football on TV.

Indeed, for many oppressed classes, there are no real holidays. In the UK, they call them “bank holidays,” which I think is an interesting reflection of the fact that they are a break from commerce—not necessarily a break for all in the public. It’s also not lost on me that the word “holiday” derives from “holy day.” Although our so-called public holidays are supposedly secular, in fact not even our language is.