I was walking up to our local shops to buy some potatoes when across the road, in the distant I saw a neighbour of mine standing still and staring into, well nowhere. She was in silhouette and indistinct because of the low sun but the combination of her and her wee dog made me fairly positive of their identity. As I neared her I wondered whether she was okay. Was she struggling to remember something? Do people who have strokes stand like statues? But no, on closer inspection I could see she was staring at a flock of racing pigeons sitting on the eaves of a house. My neighbour was doing a bit of bird watching.

Having purchased the said potatoes, I was returning home when I saw the same neighbour again ahead of me. I caught up and we chatted. Well, I made the odd comment and my neighbour did most of the talking but she is elderly and I think it is important to make help older generations feel less isolated in their communities. Whatever the reason, I don’t mind listening to her. She mentioned going on holiday soon and since the last few occasions I had seen her walking alone rather than with her usual friend, I asked whether her friend was on holiday. I then heard the tale of the friend going to a Grandson’s wedding but not taking any pictures of the bride because “she didn’t talk to us”. An offence perhaps innocently done had already caused a family feud right at the beginning of the marriage. “Not a good start”, I said thinking fleetingly of the same offence caused at my own wedding. My neighbour told me that she wasn’t seeing so much of her friend because the friend was becoming too nosey as indicated by an uninvited look into a kitchen cupboard.

I eventually said my goodbyes and walked the rest of the way home reflecting on how easy people found it to interpret an action as offensive, become angry and bear a grudge. This had resonated with another conversation I had with my own friend. He was angry because his niece hadn’t told him about the breakup of the niece’s romantic relationship. I was puzzled by this anger, what was the cause of it though I didn’t get the chance (or perhaps take the chance) to discuss it. Was it embarrassment about making arrangements with the boyfriend which eventually showed up a lack of knowledge about the relationship ending? Perhaps it was the expectation that the uncle had a right to know what was going on the niece’s relationship? Perhaps the uncle had to readjust his expectations about the trust level of relationship he had with his niece?

I thought about my own children. I don’t have any expectation of knowing anything about their personal lives. Sure I am interested, I would like to meet their partners and hear their take on my kids but I don’t expect my kids to tell me. I would like to form my own relationship with their partners, but I would take my lead from my kids.  I guess I hope my kids would talk to me if they wanted some support but I would try to be neutral about their choices (I did say try there).

I put myself in the niece’s position. If I was going through a difficult time with a partner, I wouldn’t necessarily want to talk about it with a family member because it might get back to my parents. I could do without the judgement of anybody else. Experience would tell me that my family would be annoyed about me not telling them but that is their problem not mine, I don’t control their feelings. Dammed if I do tell them, dammed if I don’t. I would probably keep quiet too.

I wonder what the source of these offences are and I think it comes down to cultural expectations. The problem is that the rules of cultures are often encoded by experience and example. For instance one side of my family expects a physical card and present on their birthday, the other would be fine with a phone call. One side expects a public declaration of gratitude in front of the family group for a cooked meal whereas the other sees clearing your plate as a seal of approval. One thinks walking and eating in the street is wrong, whereas the other wouldn’t understand how this could be an offence.

Of course each group we form creates its own culture. My community will have one (suburbs over city centres), my age group will have one (punk rock over disco), even my wife and I (licking yoghurt lids or not). There are conflicts caused by expectations and really when you get down to it (disco term?) do they really matter? As a person with autism who has lived through a liver transplant, these rules and regulations can drive me insane. For others, these rules are what makes a relationship different and special, we are defined by our cultures.

I wish I could say I was above all this but I am not. I can take offence because my partner needs to stop the dog licking the dregs off the plates in the dishwasher over giving me a hug. A momentary distraction and I am annoyed, no longer wanting a hug though it takes a few seconds to work that out. I can explain how the situation arose and acknowledge how illogical it is but I can’t get past the perceived rejection and now both of us are hurting.  Not a good outcome.

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