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Note: It has been well over 10 years since this happened, but I think about this more often than I am happy to admit.

Background Story:

When I was 15 I went for an exchange year in the US. I was a Junior in a normal High School. In my first English course, the very first thing the teacher did was play a game to learn the names of everyone. Most students knew each others names already, since they have been on the same grade for 2 years. I didn't know anyone. The teacher told us to make a line, from the "dumbest" student at the door, to the "smartest" student at the window side. The student on the "dumb" side would start stating their name, the next student had to repeat the first students name and add their own, and so on. The "smartest" student had to repeat all names.

So far so good, but my English back then was awful, and I was used to British pronunciation. Furthermore the room was noisy and I was sitting in the back. So instead of "dumb" and "smart", I understood "tall" and "short". Me being from Germany (where it was more normal to wear dress shoes with a heel for a good first impression) and being naturally tall, I was on the "dumb" end.

The teacher approached me immediately asking me why I stood were I stood, looking over to the line I immediately noticed the people were not in order of their height. So I told him I must have misunderstood him, and if he could repeat where I am supposed to stand. And he replied while laughing: "You giving that answer shows me you stand exactly where you are supposed to stand!"

This made the entire class laugh and I did not understand why. So I didn't do anything, just stood there trying very hard not cry, and telling myself they did not mean to hurt me. A class mate explained what was funny to me afterwards, but I wasn't able to make any friends in that class for the entire year. I made friends in other classes though, and with the girls in the volleyball team I joined. I wanted to come across as a likable person who can take a joke and is open to their culture.

Here is my question:

How should I have handled being laughed at in a room full of people (who do not mean to harm me) in a foreign country with limited language abilities? Is there (specific to the US) a way to take this gracefully and without coming of as humorless or stuck up? Please take into consideration that most important to me was the impression I made on my classmates, as I did not have any friends yet.

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  • "most important to me was the impression I made" - even this can be made clearer by specifying what kind of impression you want to make - 'good impression' is subjective. Do you want to be seen as respectable, fun to be around, not-a-doormat, funny, etc.?
    – Sarov
    Dec 7, 2021 at 18:01
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    This teacher used a very poor way to categorize students, and it's possible that the students followed the direction of the teacher - in which case, there was little you could have done better, especially as you didn't understand at that point. Dec 7, 2021 at 23:31
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    Boy, that teacher should have placed himself at the "tall" end of the line... A stupid way to categorize students, and a mean gibe at a student's expense for the sake of a laugh. Self-serving and probably not the only damage that teacher has done. And just think what big heads the "smart" kids will have gotten after their time with him...
    – Euchris
    Jan 9 at 14:22

2 Answers 2

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You should forgive yourself in this case. For starters, it was very harsh to line people up from dumb to smartest, but maybe that itself was a show of humility - i.e. if you think you are smart you would have to back it up by remembering all the names, and conversely, admitting you were on the dumb side would make your task easier.

As for how you should have reacted, I'm not sure unless you understood why people thought it was funny that you could have had an ideal reaction. I assume from your description of your lack of mastery of the situation that you were somewhat confused which doesn't allow you to come up with an optimal response. That's why I say forgive yourself: how were you supposed to know when you misunderstood the original assignment?

That said, if you did understand the joke and why the teacher said that, there is a way to save face. I find self-deprecating humor makes you the joker and not the butt of the joke. So if you understood the situation better you could have said, "I guess I'm in the right spot then!" People may have laughed but it would be more with you than at you. Alternately, you could have bowed as if you acknowledge that you deserve the negative attention. Essentially to show people you are not hurt by their joking and actively taking a part in it diffuses the situation somewhat.

In summary, there's no great way to deal with a challenging situation like this if you didn't understand the question in the first place, but self-deprecation often shields you from being made fun of.

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Not having any friends in a classroom for a year can be difficult. I imagine you felt isolated or socially excluded which can cause great anxiety in a person

"I wasn't able to make any friends in that class for the entire year"

Both your action and the teacher's action seems understandable to me. It was a misunderstanding. You handled it to the best of your abilities at that time. And the teacher did not handle it skilfully, but I'm sure he would have it handled it better if he could.

First of all, know that it is in the past. You'll never be in the same situation in which you're a 15-yo exchange student with limited English listening skills.

Anyway, if it does happen that an authority person requests to line up from dumbest to smartest, or applies any sort of ranking, or degrading practices, and people laugh about it, know that you did well by thinking:

"they did not mean to hurt me"

Understand that

  1. Laughing releases stress
  2. Laughing signals safety

What else could you have done?

You could have spoken up about what was happening, either immediately or waiting until you have calmed down (5 minutes or so, but not such a long time that the event is forgotten).

Say to the authority figure:

I know you did not meant any harm.

However, when you said X and laughed (or acted so and so)

I felt embarrassed/small/hurt and confused

because I thought you were thinking very lowly of me and I did not understand what was happening.

Furthermore, you assert that the impression you make on others is important to you:

"most important to me was the impression I made on my classmates, as I did not have any friends yet."

I can imagine that this idea of making a good impression arises for your need of social inclusion

Know that one impression on others does not define you. Even a thousand impressions on others does not define you, though it gives a far better idea to others what you are. Therefore, don't be fazed by one impression you leave or even a thousand, but steadily keep true to your own character and hold your faith in humanity.

Likewise, take control of how you want to treat others with kindness and non-harm, and thereby set an example for others how to be a friend to you.

By keeping true to your own virtuous abilities you can accumulate like-minded people around you.

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