Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Serbs Relentlessly Criticize the Ones They Love

Forgive me. The word probably should not be "criticize", but I don't know what the word in English is for this activity because we just don't do it. Not in the same way.

When a Serb meets a dear friend or relative, often nearly the first words out of his or her mouth will be what Americans would consider critical, rude and even hurtful. For example: "You're getting too fat!" Or, "You're wasting your money on that fancy cell phone." Or, "Your nervous stress is terrible for you and the people who have to live with you."

Whether it's your health, your personal appearance, your finances, your emotions, your love life, your career... let's face it, every single one of us has more than one thing which could be improved. The difference between Serbs and Americans is that Serbs openly and frequently discuss these things with each other in normal conversation. "It's good to see you, but your outfit is atrocious."

If an American is in a particularly bitchy or immature mood, he or she may say those things behind another person's back. It's a bit poisonous, nothing to be proud of. But he or she would never dream of saying it directly in everyday conversation with the person concerned. In polite American society -- especially with the ones you love -- personal criticism is given in exceptional situations of either extreme anger or extreme delicacy.

When my husband and I first met, I found this situation, enduring what was to me constant daily criticism, rather painful. Here, when I wanted to appear at my absolute best for the most important person I'd ever met, I was obviously failing miserably. From his conversation, it seemed the relationship was doomed as he ceaselessly thought about everything was wrong with me. How else could he make those remarks every day otherwise?

"But, I am not criticizing you!," he would explain. "I am trying to help you. I love you! I wouldn't bother to say these things if I didn't love you."

What helped the most, aside from the fact that I was absolutely crazy about him, was seeing him encounter the exact same situation whenever he ran into other Serbs we knew. When his sister said, "Hello, that beard looks awful!" as we walked in the door, and my father's best Serb friend said point blank, "You're getting a pot belly!" immediately upon being introduced to my husband, I began to see this wasn't about our relationship... it was about our cultures.

Since then, I have learned slowly but surely to take Serbian criticism in the spirit in which it is given. As an expression of caring and support. A disconcerting and annoying one, but one nonetheless.

Today though, after five years, I learned something completely new about the situation. It suddenly occurred to me to ask, "What have I ever criticized about you?" He thought for a moment, "Almost nothing. You hardly ever criticize me." "Ha!" I thought triumphantly. Now he will gain perspective and see things from my point of view. Then he continued, "That's a real problem with you. I need you to point things out so I can learn from them. I know I have a lot to improve and you are one of the best people to help me, but you're not helping!" "You mean you wish I would criticize you?" I was astounded. "Yes, yes of course I do! You really need to improve about that. If you love me, you will."


kbaar said...

This blog really hit home with me from a business sense. We just completed our 360 degree feedback cycle and were encouraged to leave lots of feedback for those above, below and peers.

Although the concept of giving frequent feedback is sound, I think it requires the receiver to be mentally balanced and be reflective in nature. And I think it requires the sender to be versed in giving constructive feedback and having a perspective of what's valid feedback and what's their own trash getting in the way. That's a lot to ask of most people.

So instead, our 360-degree feedback ends up doing more harm than good in most situations. Or it's completely ignored.

Maybe the situation is different when it's a spouse or close relative - but I'm all for keeping bigger boundaries at work.

But I'm American - so maybe it's just my cultural bias. Maybe Serbs are more mature - I think that's very possible!

Mia Bojanic said...

My mom does this constantly to my dad and her kids...much to the amusement of everyone around (except my dad & us). I always found it painful, but I don't think I've seen all my relatives & serbian friends do this to each other. My husband thinks Serbs are more demonstrative in their emotions than Americans. I do notice a difference in how my mom treats him & his mom treats me.

gordo said...

Actually, your husband must think he is perfects as you never criticize him. ;-)

As for myself, I'm "gently" criticized all the time by my Serb partner.

Anonymous said...

classic and so true! :)

ieishah said...

last week my serb touched my sideburn hair (which, due to my dark skin is barely noticeable to others) and said, 'why don't you depilate this?' i thought about giving him a lecture on how the point of dreadlocks is that you don't cut. ever. but i remembered this post, and instead answered, 'love you too, babe.' so yeah. thanks!

Anonymous said...

OMG, this hit me like ton of bricks! I've been living in the US, married to an American for 9 years and your blog just opened my eyes!!! He's never helpful, he's always so polite, which why I consider him dettached :))). I'm super critical of him (not fair now I see) because he's such a great guy and with some minor imporovements could be fantastic :). Thanks for the blog!

Anonymous said...

Wow. This post touched a nerve. My Serb husband whom I have known for 11 years is often like this - but when his mom stayed with us for a month last year to visit my baby girl, she was CONSTANTLY picking on me. Even when I was trying to divulge how his son had changed over the years, she couldn't just listen but had to interrupt with her ideas and thoughts and criticism. But at the same time, she appeared and behaved lovingly, was affectionate and warm, but CRITICAL. Total contrast. I come from an Asian culture where you don't say nasty things to a person's face because it makes them look bad, so it drove me nuts with my mom-in-law. It's always about how much she loves me and my family - BUT, she needs her comments to be heard, even the unsolicited ones.

BubamaraMama said...

Verry Interesting!
I have to wonder if this is why my Croatian husband takes my sometimes (I admit)critical nagging so well and totally in stride, never seeeming to have his feelings hurt by it, but truly using it to improve himself?!
Thanks for the posts!!

Marie Ottem said...

Oh haha! My mother in law tells me im too fat all the time, and at first i got hurt, but then my fiance explained to me that its normal, and now i dont bother listening to her when she tells me im to fat, or have a lot of pimples :p