Does OK Really Mean OK?

By Julia Gutman


While living in Harlem some years back, I was frequently awakened on Saturday mornings by a duo of very persistent Jehovah Witnesses. Telling them that I was Jewish didn’t help. Informing them that I am also Buddhist did nothing to discourage them either. Making a puppy face and explaining that I am generally a lazy person who likes to sleep late on weekends had the same–zero–effect. Even confiding in them that my partner was already a Christian did not discourage the persistent believers from trying to save my soul almost every Saturday.

Extremely sleep deprived, I once asked a friend to open the door for me. He spoke very polite Russian to them. The following Saturday, a Jamaican woman with Russian skills better than a native speaker’s showed up at my door holding their church’s pamphlet in Russian. We debated numerous topics in religion, philosophy and the nature of things for about two hours, at which point she left, quite fearful, I think, because she had lost all hope of ever bringing me to see the truth as she saw it. Now imagine what happens when people with two (or more) different religious and cultural backgrounds, encumbered by love and other passions for each other, enter into a marriage.

My intermarriage is somewhat easier than others’, I think (and my husband agrees), because we actually share a religion. We grew up with different religions, he as a Buddhist, and I as an ethnic Jew surrounded by a religiously atheist society, since atheism is a kind of religion, if you think about it honestly. But over the years, through my study of psychology and philosophy, I came to be interested and started to believe in the Buddhist way of life. Now, some people, myself included, may not think of Buddhism as a religion at all in many aspects. But there are other aspects of Buddhism that are very clearly religious in their nature. At least for me, it is both a religion and a non-theistic philosophy. My husband and I are also from different cultures, with different native languages. And so, on top of all our regular marital issues we have to struggle with multiple misunderstandings and disagreements stemming from our varying backgrounds.

One type of argument starts with pure linguistic misunderstanding. Sometimes, although my husband and I primarily speak the same language, English, we mean different things by using the same word. For example, when my husband says something is OK, most often than not what he really means is that something is not really good, but he has a cultural reticence to say that it is bad. Saying that something is OK sounds polite but honest enough to convey that he does not expressly like or approve something. It took me years and numerous arguments to figure it out. However, once I grasped what he really means by OK, many of our arguments simply disappeared.

There are many other words that hold very different, almost opposite, meanings for each of us. There are two ways to deal with this kind of problem. If we prefer to get to the bottom of the argument on the spot, all we need to do is to keep talking and clarifying what exactly each of us means. Eventually, we usually discover we are arguing over nothing more than a linguistic difference in the way we use words, not really about a difference of opinion. However, if either of us cannot possibly discuss anything while upset, it is much wiser and more pleasant to wait for that person to calm down and disassociate from the passion of the argument before clarifying what exactly was meant by what was said.

My husband and I also grapple with our differing views of the same religion–Tibetan Buddhism. For instance, my husband, having grown up as a “lay Buddhist,” whose main knowledge of his religion comes from the people and culture around him, believes you should always put an altar and any religious object very high, where you can treat them with respect by not accidentally blocking them with other things (like photos), stepping over them, knocking them down and so on. I learned Buddhism from religious teachers, Tibetan monks and books on the subject. As I learned it, the altar should be rather low from the ground, where it can be easily observed while meditating on the floor. Since we practice mindfulness, we would never knock things down in such a spot but will utilize the altar better by being able to see each of the objects on it, which is the whole point–each object represents a particular concept and is a sort of a label for our mind to concentrate on that concept.

In this kind of disagreement, we found two solutions that seem so far to be the least painful: one is taking turns at having things our way (or, more precisely, we pick which things are most important to us and take turns at having them according to our beliefs), and the other solution is negotiating a middle ground. To illustrate the taking-turns solution: I gave up placing objects important to my meditation practice in certain spots because it made my husband uncomfortable. An example of the negotiation approach is the position of our altar: we have negotiated a middle ground, quite literally, by placing religious objects from our altar at a medium height–not as high as my husband would have liked it nor as low as I would have preferred.

Yet another breed of miscommunication comes from our differing knowledge of and views on Judaism. This is a particularly difficult subject, as I come from an immigrant atheistic family which nevertheless considers itself Jewish by ethnicity, a very prevalent concept in our birth country, the former Soviet Union. Since I am Jewish by ethnicity and have relatives who range from atheistic purely “ethnic” Jews to Orthodox, my husband, understandably, sometimes questions the validity of my desires regarding things Jewish from a religious point of view. For instance, he did not understand why we have to set up a kosher table for one of our birthdays when we do not keep kosher as a rule. He thought it was hypocritical. From my experience with him, I knew that first I had to let him explain why he felt that way, to let him know I understood why he held a particular opinion, that it was indeed reasonable. Then, I had to be very explicit and clear in my explanation, and tried my best to stay away from assumptions, and explain that for my relatives and friends who are Orthodox, it would be unacceptable to eat non-kosher food. But if we put together a proper kosher dinner, tableware included, our (religiously) Jewish friends and family could partake of the meal without any religious wrongdoing or dilemma.

In miscommunication about different religions, the problem is most often the assumption that the other person knows what you know or believes what you believe, as opposed to an actual difference in belief. For most people, especially the kind of people who would enter into an intermarriage of any sort, it is not that difficult to see another point of view. You just have to remember not to assume too much.

My husband and I have many layers of miscommunication and disagreements, not just the three I mentioned. Nevertheless, since we really love each other, or maybe even more importantly, since we truly want to be a family and spend our lives together, we are motivated to learn what our partner means and to explain ourselves more clearly. The whole process may even help each of us get to know ourselves better.


About Julia Gutman

Julia Gutman, M.A., a Barnard and Columbia graduate, works mainly in psychological research and teaching English as a Foreign Language. She currently lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter and two cats.