Is it Cultural, Generational, or just Me?

by cv harquail on August 19, 2010

When I notice au pairs doing things differently from the way(s) that I’d do them, it’s often unclear to me here the difference comes from. Where the difference comes from matters to me, because it guides the way that I respond to the difference.

If I think it’s a question of knowledge or experience, I’ll go ahead and explain my way of doing something and the reasons behind it.

If I think it’s a question of personality or generational differences, and the difference isn’t really important, I just let it

But when the difference is cultural, I often struggle with how to respond. Is it a difference that influences my au pair’s comfort? Or my comfort? Is it a learning opportunity? Or should I just let it slide?

Let me give you an example.

Today is one of the most beautiful, sunny days of the summer. Au Pair CB decided to spend some off-duty time ‘catching some rays’ by sunbathing in our yard.

Our front yard.

The front yard that everyone sees as they walk to the park down the street. The front yard that Doug the mailman has to cross from our front porch to our neighbors. The front yard — you know, the part right in front of our house.

And did I mention that Au Pair CB is model-gorgeous, and wearing a two piece bathing suit?

Why did her sunbathing location surprise me? Is it a cultural, generational or personal difference in sunbathing norms?

Had it been me in my twenties, I’d be sunbathing in the side yard or on the back patio, shielded by our big hemlock hedge from passersby. (Me in my forties? I’m not much of a sunbather.) Had it been me being American? Again, I’d be in the backyard, maybe with music coming out the kitchen window.

But I’d never just toss my beach towel on the grass in front of the house.

I can’t quite pinpoint where the difference comes from:

Scandinavia vs. US? 20s vs. 40s?  Athlete vs. soccer mom?

Who knows?


Nanny August 19, 2010 at 6:08 pm

I am Australian and 19. I sunbake in the back yard.

It sounds cultural to me (it might be the norm where she is from), maybe also to do with her personality, she might be very confident.

2boys2girls August 19, 2010 at 7:34 pm

I would vote for confidence/personality. We also had an AP who liked to lay out on the grass in our local kids’ park in a teeny bikini. I never saw anyone else doing that, nor have I seen anyone doing that since she went home. Several people even took her photograph with their camera phones.
When I mentioned that this was a bit unusual for our community her response was that she liked the attention…

aria August 19, 2010 at 7:41 pm

I think a LOT of stuff like that can be chalked up to cultural differences. It’s a clich√© that Americans are big prudes and Europeans walk around topless, but there is some truth to it! I have a couple of experiences with that cultural gap. Beware, TMI below!

1) When I first went to the gym with my Norwegian roommate in Paris (before becoming an AP), after working out, she waltzed right into the communal shower butt naked, without batting an eye. 16 years old and too shy to undress in front of my own mother- I was shell shocked.

2) My first bikini wax in Paris was completely sans any kind of underwear (or gloves). I’ve never had one in the States, but I’ve heard they give you at least a paper thong!

3) CV already posted a topic about this (My HM Is A Stripper!) but my HM had no problem walking around the house at odd hours with her bra and panties on. For no reason. Just because.

4) Once when I was at the pool with my host kids and HM, I mentioned how strange I found it that a little girl (around 6-7) in the pool was only wearing a bikini bottom and not top. I thought her parents ought to put a top on her, and my HM said something about how it wasn’t deemed necessary until girls had proper breasts/ started puberty (and looked at me like I was a big prude).

Granted, I can be a bit of a prude. I hardly let anyone see me undress, mom, best friends, boyfriends included, so I guess a lot of my observations are biased, but I definitely believe that there IS a big cultural difference between how different people do different things. And I didn’t even tell my story about the chewing out I got for putting water in the refrigerator!! :)

Au Pair in CO August 19, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Lol, as another Norwegian girl, I can totally recognize myself in statement number 1. I also don’t see a problem sunbathing on the front yard, and would probably be doing it myself if my host family had a front yard. As it is, I mostly sunbathe in one of the parks around here, and there’s plenty of American girls lying there in bikinis too, so I’ve never thought much about it:)

ExAP August 20, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I can say that in Germany, #1 and #4 are plain normal. :D

For #4, the girls usually want to wear bathing suits that cover it all about the age when they start going to school, but parents usually aren’t strict about that.
For #1, it depends on the people. Some don’t care, some do. Still it’s not too unusual.

Az. August 21, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Oh, I’m a complete prude! I was once at a youth conference abroad and sharing a room with other girls who I’d only just met—I noticed that the others had no problem walking around minus a bra, whereas myself (British) and an Irish girl were getting changed under the sheets!

And no, I wouldn’t sunbathe in the front yard. I doubt I’d even sunbathe out the back either, just in case the neighbours saw! (Not that I’m overweight or anything.)

Emma August 19, 2010 at 10:57 pm

I’m American (Florida) and while I wouldn’t sun bathe in the front yard, many of my tweenage (yes, ) to twenty something neighbors do.

Nancy August 20, 2010 at 9:30 am

I am of mixed European origin and I remember going to school in Germany and in 4th grade we had swimming and everyone including teachers were naked in the shower room together. That’s how the culture is.

I do feel that Americans are a bit conservative for this day and age. I don’t think a gril should wear a bikini top until there is something to hide and don’t see anything bad in being topless.

Used to be an AP August 20, 2010 at 5:12 pm

I am working as a teacher in Germany at the moment, and believe me, there is absolutely NO WAY that a teacher, no matter what kind of school, would be in the shower with his/her students. Neither naked nor otherwise. If a teacher did that s/he’d be fired.

Noga August 22, 2010 at 8:11 am

It depends when Nancy attended school in Germany. About ten years ago this would have been possible. But during the last decade there were many discussions about sexual abusive behaviour in holiday camps, boarding schools, church frameworks e.g. Therefore the standards today are quite different from those ten or fifteen years ago.

from Germany August 22, 2010 at 12:23 pm

I started school in Germany 16 years ago and our teachers were never in the shower room or changing room with us. I agree with you that it might have been normal a long time ago, but it must be longer ago than you think :)

Used to be an AP August 22, 2010 at 3:18 pm

I started school in Germany 22 years ago and it didn’t happen then either.

OnceAnAuPair August 20, 2010 at 9:52 am

I’m going to say this is partially cultural. Despite the fact that Americans are just prude (I’m one of them!), maybe she isn’t used to the back AND front yard! Many European homes just have one “garden”. Maybe she doesn’t realize that the american front yard is is usually just a display area and the backyard is where the family hangs out?

Aupair August 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm

I would say it is mostly cultural. In a lot of European countries it is even acceptable to sun bath naked on your balcony (middle of the city..still ok) because sometimes there is no other place to do it. Not to mention the countless naked saunas, many of which have a nude only rule. Basically the naked human body isn’t as strongly associated with sex in Europe as it is in the US. I also think in the northern European countries good direct sunlight is sooo hard to come by, that when you have a chance you take it no matter where you are (and you have to get maximum exposure, right?) :P

Aupairgal August 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Just to be clear, I posted the above comment but forgot the “gal” at the end.

MommyMia August 21, 2010 at 1:13 am

I totally get all the cultural variations, so obviously what I’m about to say fits into the generational category. I think someone posted under another topic about an AP who blew off the HM when she mentioned that she should use sunblock because the intensity of the sun might be stronger and wanted to say “I told you so” at the resulting sunburn. Yes, I was foolish in my teens/twenties and sunbathed to try to achieve that coveted tan skin (but got more of the burn & peel). Fast-forward 20 years to middle-aged mommy wisdom and skin – basal-cell carcinoma removed from face, wrinkles, uneven pigmentation – so I insist that my kids are slathered in sunscreen every time they’re outside and urge our APs to use it to. Of course, they think it looks “healthy” and desirable to be darker (with the one exception who was dark-complected) and think I’m over-reacting. I can point out to them every day in the weather section of the newspaper the UV index chart -“minutes until skin damage occurs” but it means nothing to them, because the damage won’t appear until long, long after they’ve gone home! I’ve even recommended some good spray on tan places that friends have told me about, but it just doesn’t compare to oiling up and soaking up those rays!

Aupairgal August 22, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I’m not sure where you live, but I just wanted to add, most of the northern European countries are further north than any state in the US which means during the year they have way less sun light. And actually laying in the sun is not always about getting enough color, but rather getting enough sun rays for vitamin D.

aupair21 August 21, 2010 at 7:54 pm

oh i totally agree about taking any chance you get to get some sunshine on your body! i can relate to that for sure..
and as someone else mentioned, we dont difference between front and back yard, we just call it “the yard” or “the garden”

aupair21 August 20, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I am also scandinavian and i could also lay down in the front yard. i doubt she has any idea you’re “questioning” this at all, so if it’s an issue for you, just let her know in a nice way:) and THANK you for this post by the way, i always lay down tanning in the front yard, and this may being an issue for my hostfamily never crossed my mind! but i’ll be more discreet in the future

1aupair August 21, 2010 at 3:31 am

I think it’s mostly about the au pair’s personality. I’m scandinavian and would never consider sunbathing in the front yard!
The 4 points made by aria are definitely true for where i grew up so those things i believe to be cultural but not the sunbathing.

Melissa August 21, 2010 at 2:08 pm

The sunbathing in the front yard sounds cultural to me. I too struggle with how to respond sometimes to these types of situations. I certainly wouldn’t want to offend our AP, and feel that doing something outside of the cultural norm is ok sometimes. However, some cultural differences or cues are more subtle and harder to pick up on, and I can understand that it would be easy for an AP to not realize that she is doing something different than what is typical (lingering for a very long time in a restaurant as many Europeans do, for example, as opposed the more American way of finishing your meal and leaving). But, I often wonder at how an AP doesn’t notice that she doing something outside of typical American standards, when it comes to something more obvious, like sunbathing in the front yard (does she not realize that she is the only one on the block doing this??), or dressing very differently? Or maybe they just don’t care and like to stand out? I remember when I was young and in Europe and very quickly realizing that I stood out like an obvious American in my blue jeans and sneakers. I wanted to blend in with the locals and quickly adjusted my attire.

Shana Medah August 21, 2010 at 8:32 pm

From a cultural point of view, there could be several things at work here. First, as some people have already mentioned, is the way that cultures define what is public and what is private, and what is acceptable behavior in the public sphere. In general, Americans consider the front yard to be a public space, and the back yard is the private area. The discomfort you feel occurs because sunbathing, and therefore exposing a large area of one’s body, falls into your category of things one does in private. Additionally, outsiders to a culture often haven’t mastered the subtle nuances and seeming inconsistencies of a culture, such as why it’s OK to sunbathe in the park (a public but neutral space) wearing a bikini but not in your front yard ( a public space that is “attached” to you – therefore what happens there is a reflection of you). And of course, there’s always the possibility that, as so many of you have already observed, she simply has no idea that there’s any meaning whatsoever attached to what she’s doing.

The even more important question is how to handle something that you believe is cultural, but making you uncomfortable. I would treat EVERY occasion like this as a learning opportunity, for several reasons. First, every encounter with cultural difference, no matter how small, is a chance for both of you to learn. Second, letting things slide is often a receipe for disaster. They tend to build up, causing unspoken, but very noticeable tension. If small things are dealt with as they come up, they don’t get the chance to fester, and you establish a history of successful conflict resolution. It’s like making deposits into your trust account, so that if (or more likely when) something serious pops up, you have something to draw on. Finally, as a host parent, you are the ambassador of American culture. Most people don’t want to behave inappropriately or make others uncomfortable (with exceptions, of course). If you don’t tell your au pair that she’s doing something that could potentially raise eyebrows in the neighborhood, she won’t have the opportunity to adapt her behavior as necessary. She might find out from someone else down the road and wonder why you didn’t steer her in the right direction. Remember that what’s obvious to you might not be obvious to your au pair.

Shana Medah
Co-Founder and Director of Training
Jamana Intercultural

Calif Mom August 25, 2010 at 10:06 am

Shana’s point about finding out from someone else later on and feeling betrayed that you–the host family who is supposed to look out for your au pair–is really important.

Once when I was a child, my mom scratched her face while we were on vacation. She had a tiny spot of blood on the very tip of her nose, but because my family’s (admittedly odd) norm was to *never* remark about each other’s looks, grooming, etc, we kids were clueless about how to handle this, and our Dad either didn’t notice or was himself too embarrassed to tell her. I remember seeing it and being horrified because I didn’t want to embarrass her by telling her. She later discovered it in a restroom mirror and was mortified–she actually cried because we had let her walk around looking like that for hours.

I learned a big lesson that day: sometimes you need to risk embarrassing someone in order to help them, even if it means going against the norms of your ‘local culture’.

AuPair20 July 4, 2011 at 12:17 am

FYI: There is nothing wrong about to walk around in just a bikini in europe. If I am going to the pool, i would just wear my bikini in the car. This is just not possible here. It is definetly a cultural thing. For us Europeans it is quite normal to just wear a bikini bottom until your breast starts growing. I just told my hostkid and she was shocked. I know that my hostfamily would not prefer me to sunbath in a bikini in the front yard, but i sometimes just ly in the front yard because it is the only spot where the sun is out. And I always wear shorts and a tank top. But if you have a problem with that, just tell them. I am sure that she never reconized it, because it is just normal for us Europeans :)

franzi August 22, 2010 at 4:14 pm

i’m with onceanaupair – i think the ap might not be used to the concept of a front AND back yard and not know what activities are generally done in which type of yard.

however, if she has a sense of that and still wants to lay out in front it could be her need to show off. bikini or not, she’s young and what difference does it make if she wears it to the pool or just sunbakes in it?

by the way, is that picture your ap in your front yard? if it is to me it just says “lots of sun! for a very long time!!!” (and it’s not like she’s laying out by the street but further back.

cv harquail August 23, 2010 at 8:53 am

Hi Franzi,
Yes, that’s CB in our front yard. I took the photo from the driveway, at the furthest (on diagonal) point from where she was… in reality, if you stood on the sidewalk perpendicular to her, she was actually much closer. (maybe 25 feet tops?) (But I wanted a shot that was far enough away that you couldn’t identify her at all …. plus it was from my phone.) cv

hOstCDmom August 23, 2010 at 9:37 pm

CV – does your AP know you do this blog? Does she read it? What did/does she think about this post?? And her picture? ;-)

Emily August 23, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Wow, I’m surprised so many of you said this is a cultural thing. I have no problem sunbathing in my front yard (I’m american, early twenties). And have friends/neighbors that do. I wouldn’t tan topless in the front yard obviously, thats what the backyard is for :) I hear so many people saying “Americans are prudes” on here…umm…have you been around the college culture recently? I wish girls were a little more prudish! Having “custom” parties is just an excuse for girls to wear a bra and underwear in public. I actually think I’m pretty modest compared to most girls. Maybe it depends on where in America you are (I’m in CA).

Aupair Mama August 24, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Yes I’m American and in my 30’s. I often come home and the kids and aupair are sunning themselves on a beach towel in the front yard. I never thought anything of it. I thought it was cute. I like the front yard myself.. I don’t sun there because I’m already brown enough but if I sit out there all the time. You get visitors and ‘interesting’ sights even if its just coming and going of mailman. Backyard is just trees. I do think many many Americans are kinda uptight.

Emily August 23, 2010 at 12:41 pm

oops! I meant costume.

Gianna August 23, 2010 at 1:49 pm

I think Emily raises a very important point – the United States is a huge country and a multi-cultural one at that. Many big cities are very similiar in some ways and there are many stereotypes of different parts of the country that do not survive any serious discussion. As an American, I am always interested to hear how people perceive American culture. What differs from region to region and what is the same. Are host families different from non-host families. Maybe Shana has some thoughts on that.

Shana Medah August 25, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Very True. One important aspect of learning a new culture is learning about the nuances and variations within the culture due to age, region, gender, socio-economic class, education, and just about any other variable you can think of. Any larger culture is always made up of many, many subcultures, and you know that you are really getting to know a new culture when you start to see the shades of those subcultures in the people you interact with.

Shana Medah
Co-Founder and Director of Training
Jamana Intercultural

Used to be an AP August 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Having lived in the US both as an AP and a student (in different regions, as an AP at the East Coast, as a student in the south), I think that there definitely is a difference between regions and also the kind of people you get to meet. The Americans I met while being an AP were mostly either children, host parents or neighbors. To me both the host parents and the neighbors seemed very prude (and still do). The thing that struck me most in this area were the attitudes towards boy/girlfriends. It is not unusual in Germany that if a 15 year old has boy-or girlfriend that they have sleepovers in the same bed and in most cases probably have sex. It is just not considered that important. Abstinence only education is not an option in Germany. Also, several things that host parents in general viewed as “bad”, e.g. tatoos, piercings, in some cases having a driver’s licsense for a motor cycle etc. are just normal in most of Europe I guess.
When I went to college all these things were suddenly “cool” and 18 year olds had their boy/girlfriends sleep over in their dorm rooms, drank too much alcohol and smoked a lot. So Emily’s comment comment about the college culture is pretty much what I experienced as well. Although some people did complain about a girl from the Netherlands sunbathing in her bikini.
I think that the reason why a lot of APs get the impressions that Americans are prude is that stereotypically most Americans that they meet are either HPs or neighbors of HPs, mostly older than 35, usually upper middle class or higher, very well educated with clear goals for the children that they “helicopter” a lot more than is done in Europe for instance.
Of course, another issue is that “Americans are prude” is a stereotype/prejudice that most Europeans seem to have and if you already are prejudiced you are very likely to see exactly those things that cater to those stereotypes.

Denice August 23, 2010 at 6:46 pm

I think it’s just a cultural thing plus confidence plus the desire for attention.
I’m from Europe and when I went in Uk as an au pair, and wanted to visit the seaside and have a tan, I was surprised and shocked to see that I was the only one who was wearing a two piece bathing suit. It was such a nice sunny day and all the other ones had t-shirts and shorts on.
Should I mention that at home, in our garden I stay naked if I want to catch some rays?
Not to mention that at the seaside EVERYBODY does topless? or if you have cojones, you can stay naked and enjoy the weather. And it’s so cool to swim like this.
Children bath together, we sleep with our brothers/sisters in the same bed until we get old enough, my friends wash my back or my hair when I have a bath, or occasionally they give me massages. I love to cuddle up in my bed near my mom and dad,spoil myself ( and ask for money :D ) even if I’m almost 24 now. And believe me, there are no crimes.
I think british people ( don’t know anything about americans) are so cold and forgot to have human contact. You don’t see many couples kissing and hugging. You don’t see people holding hands in restaurants.
Such a shame…..

Amber August 27, 2010 at 2:05 pm

British people are reserved rather than cold. If their beach behaviour surprised you, be prepared if you AP in the US. When I first moved across the Atlantic I was amazed to see a ‘No disrobing’ sign on the beach!

Taking a Computer Lunch August 23, 2010 at 11:59 pm

I’m not very modest (although now that I’m fat, I cover up) – before we had kids HD and I tried to skinny dip (swim naked) as much as possible and had our favorite swimming holes. I often skinny dip in my daughter’s pool at night, especially after a softball game when I’m too sticky to pull on a suit. However, if my AP sunbathed in my front yard, I’d hear about it from neighbors, and maybe so would she. I have a feeling that many of my APs have sunbathed naked on our back deck, which is protected from public view and gets great direct sun, and quite frankly, given the busybody across the street, that’s the best place for them to be. My son used to swim starkers until he was 7 or 8, but he’s very modest this year. Given his new sense of modesty, I would hope that APs would have the sense not to sunbathe nude in front of him, although I wouldn’t complain about a bikini (and neither would he).

Mumsy August 25, 2010 at 10:28 am

We live in the Midwest. It’s not uncommon to see teenagers sunbathing in bikini’s in the parks around us. They usually play loud music or speak loudly and jump around to attract attention to themselves. I can remember doing the same thing when I was a teenager. My friends and I thought we were hot and wanted guys to look at us!
Additionally, my neighbor (in her early 40’s and a born and raised Midwesterner) sunbathes in her bikini in her front yard. It’s an unusual sight but she feels comfortable doing it.

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