Here’s one of those little things that pass my inbox and warm my heart.  It was a message to the Social List from a first-year student I’ll call Inquiring Mind (IM).  So IM is new to the U.S. and was curious about an aspect of American culture.  What did he do?  He sent the question out to his crack team of cultural interpreters — the Social List.  IM wrote:

Social List!
I recently became aware of a cross-cultural academic nuance that I had to share.  Apparently it is inappropriate to ask fellow students about their grades here in the U.S.  This is in complete contrast to my educational experience in India where, not only is this a very fair question, you almost never had to ask to find out.  That is because a lot of schools would post the results of the entire student body on public notice boards for everyone to see.  I distinctly remember learning about my grades from friends who had a knack of getting to those notice boards before I did.

There are probably deeper social values at play here that define what is appropriate, and I would like to know your thoughts on it, particularly about the “appropriateness’” of this question.

I love the fact that someone can ask a question like this, with confidence that supportive classmates will help him out.  The answers poured in right away.

Cultural Interpreter #1 wrote:

I wish I had an explanation why.  Maybe it’s because we’re over-achievers and either embarrassed by a bad grade or feel like we’re flaunting our good grades, if we tell others.  But whoever gave you that pearl of wisdom, it’s definitely true.  Unless someone offers to tell you his grade, I wouldn’t ask.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and in some instances — maybe among your study group where you all worked really hard together, or if you know someone was particularly worried about an exam — it would not be inappropriate to ask.  But I’ll bet that if you ask people how they did on an exam or paper, the general response will be, “I did fine” (which I would correlate with an A or A-).  “Not my best work, but it will do,” probably equals an A- or B, depending on the person.  But “Damn, that teacher totally has it out for me” points to less than a B. Then again, maybe that’s just me.

An additional curious international student then wrote:

I’d really be interested to hear more about this.  I am in my fifth academic year as a student in this country, and I’ve noticed many thought-provoking aspects of youth in this society, of social norms and customs both inside and outside the classroom.  I’d love to hear what graduate-level, older students have to say, especially as almost everyone here has had international experience and so many Fletcher students are not American.  Is it really a no-no to reveal one’s grades in the U.S.?

Cultural Interpreter #2 jumped in to say:

I have always assumed it had something to do with the Protestant Work Ethic vibe/Puritan roots of the U.S.:  Hard work is a duty; humility is absolute; privacy is supreme.  Many people don’t abide by those same rules in their day-to-day life, of course, but I recall being told early on in my (public) school never to discuss our academic achievements publicly.  It might be similar to how we don’t talk about money (“How much did your condo cost?”  “How much do you make yearly?”), which in some countries is totally o.k.

Cultural Interpreter #3 took the conversation further, and also added a cultural reference:

Although not officially publicized, everyone knew everyone’s grades among my high school friends.  (Less so in college.)  Yet if the information was not offered and you had to ask, it was awkward.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps the aversion to making grades public has to do with the spirit of promoting self-esteem and eternal optimism that is particularly strong in some American circles?  Taken to its extreme, it’s as if we can’t puncture the illusion that “of course we’re all above average!”

Finally, Cultural Interpreter #4 concluded the conversation:

I think part of it, as well, might have to do with the fact that a lot of us were always conscious that families had different expectations re: what was an “acceptable” grade vs. an “achievement” vs. a “failure” — differences that correspond pretty closely with the cultural diversity found in much of America.  Kids learn early that some families celebrate what other families want to see improve, and discussing grades only reinforces that.  No one wants to hear, “Your parents are rewarding you for a B?  Mine would hire a tutor.”  (Not that I ever said that, but my family was definitely in the latter camp.)  Neither is right or wrong, but as a kid it’s difficult to understand, which means that the question often gets circumvented.

Of course, these are only anecdotal responses, and a future thesis on the topic will require more research.  Still, I feel good when I see this type of connection among students, to the benefit of all.

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