Matthew Coutts, National Post (Toronto), May 22, 2009
In trying to adapt to a patchwork of often conflicting cultures, has civility become the casualty of accommodation? Illustration by Rebecca Yanovskaya In trying to adapt to a patchwork of often conflicting cultures, has civility become the casualty of accommodation?
When the landlady of my Toronto apartment building said an outraged neighbour had filed a complaint about me over an apparently inappropriate hallway interaction with his wife, my mind raced through the countless conversations I’ve had with fellow tenants, none of which seemed a possible source of offence.
It turns out, it wasn’t a salacious transaction that had caused the complaint, but rather a neighbourly and–to me–entirely forgettable greeting, little more than a brief “good morning” as I passed my neighbours on the way to work.
Still, it was enough of an affront for the man–once a doctor somewhere in the Middle East, my landlady clarified–to feel I had broken a cultural taboo. The incident started an awkward feud which has involved warnings not to repeat my indiscretion and one face-to-face shouting match, which included allusions to my impending death.
I expect the battle will wage on, as we appear to be stuck at an impasse.
His Muslim upbringing has ingrained in him a sense of entitlement to demand I not speak directly to his wife; and my prairie upbringing has ingrained in me a duty to strive for polite cohesion with my neighbours.
My landlady, who has handled the complaint with tittering trepidation, hasn’t helped dispel the friction. She has told me to adhere to the demands because the man “could be dangerous,” directing me to literally turn my back to the couple as they pass, never make eye contact and never hold the elevator for them, no matter what.
Life among neighbours has become increasingly complicated by multiculturalism, in this case making even the most affable salutation or good Samaritan gesture a practice in walking on eggshells. But in trying to adapt to a patchwork of often conflicting cultures, has civility become the casualty of accommodation?
I grew up in Manitoba, where it was an affront to your neighbour not to be cordial. If you didn’t greet them by name you could be talked about in hushed voices and risked being labelled standoffish. Community amongst neighbours was not something to consider, it was a way of life. Call it prairie law.
Since moving to Toronto, I have lived in condos where asking your neighbour for the proverbial cup of sugar is greeted by skeptical, confused faces and closed doors.
But the majority have been open to the time-passing chats that break down barriers.
My midtown apartment building is home mostly to young professionals and is the definition of nondescript. I frequently hold doors for people carrying packages and say “you’re welcome” if they show gratitude. I have run errands for unfamiliar neighbours because I was heading out into the rain anyway and there was no point in us both getting wet. I chat like a fool while waiting in the laundry room.
Of course, denying me the right to greet a woman in our shared hallway fails to measure up to reported conflicts that have caused a culture clash, such as Canada’s reaction to a recent Afghan law allowing some husbands to withhold food until their wives agree to sex, or the case of a Toronto-area father and son accused of killing a daughter who refused to wear a hijab at school.
I discussed my situation with the head of a prominent Muslim women’s rights organization, who was understandably more concerned with the living conditions of the woman in question. She described the segregation of sexes as one of the worst examples of fundamentalist Islamic misinterpretation and dismissed the idea that my greeting could be construed as an offence.
Keep smiling, keep saying hello, she advised. The successful cohesion of cultures requires concessions from both sides. Offence or not, I have continued to greet those I share a building with, although the couple next door continue living in reclusion.
The alternative to this is to live amongst strangers in an icy standoff, fearful that the slightest attempt at community might be viewed as an affront. The alternative is to abandon prairie law, turn your back and close your eyes. And that sounds terrible.