Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tattoos & etiquette

Tattoos have been a part of human culture for thousands of years.

The Otzi Iceman, discovered near the Italian-Austrian border and carbon-dated at around 5,2000 years old, had tattoos. Mummies show us that Egyptian women (and exclusively women, it appears, possibly believed to safeguard them during pregnancy and childbirth) commonly had tattoos. The Iron Age Scythians, an ancient Iranian people, had tattoos — often of mythological animals, and generally a mark of nobility.

Many, many more cultures across the globe have used tattoos throughout history as protective or therapeutic symbols, a way to mark your status in society, or self-expression. Fighting in a war, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a religious or inspirational symbol — all of these occasions are often immortalized in tattoos.

These days, you are just as likely to see that permanent body art on a young person: more than a third of young adults who responded to a 2007 Pew Research study have tattoos. Another Pew Study says that 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have tattoos.

As tattoos become more commonplace — especially among young people, those to whom we teach etiquette the most — the time is ripe to discuss etiquette.

Is it OK to stare at someone’s tattoos? Is it OK to ask a complete stranger about them? Is it OK to share your (often unsolicited) advice about tattoos?

We talked with a lot of young people who have them — from a woman with a single bird on her back to a man whose body is nearly covered with them — and got a variety of answers with several common themes.

In the end, you’ll have to use your judgment. A good friend will likely be more open to discussing body art than a complete stranger, but there are occasions when asking a stranger about his or her tattoo is acceptable. Some people we interviewed welcomed the opportunity to chat with strangers; others said they are not comfortable talking to strangers about their tattoos. Watch for social cues — if someone is giving you signals that they don’t want to talk about it, respect that.

Initiating conversation, asking questions

Say you notice a stranger’s tattoo and find it intriguing. You want to know more. Is it ever appropriate to initiate conversation — and if so, when?

One friend compares her tattoo to a piece of clothing or accessory: if the tattoo is in a visible area, feel free to ask questions about it like you might ask about someone’s earrings or dress. If the tattoo is covered or partially covered, don’t ask about it. Think of it this way: you might see a glimpse of a stranger’s undergarments, but you wouldn’t ask questions about them.

People who view their tattoos as art often want to share them with the larger world. A friend who has extensive visible tattoos welcomes questions from strangers. It’s a conversation icebreaker, he says, and he finds himself talking to people he may not otherwise meet. As a frequent traveler, he has found that strangers in both large cities and rural areas have responded in ways others might find surprising: open, curious, engaged, polite.

Another friend with visible tattoos who works with the public says she’s happy to answer quick questions and has enjoyed some interesting conversations that way.

On the other hand, another friend says that even if her tattoos are visible, she got them for her own benefit, partially as a way of to feel less alienated and more connected to her body. She answers tactful questions, but briefly — she doesn’t want to spend too much time discussing them.

Discussing the meaning behind them

If the tattoo is plainly visible, and if it’s clear that the person is not avoiding having a conversation with you, it’s acceptable to ask a stranger, “Would you mind telling me about your tattoo?” If the answer is no, accept that. If it is yes, than be prepared: some people get tattoos that are quite esoteric and require lengthy explanations. Others get tattoos to commemorate events both happy and tragic.

Refrain from asking why they got a tattoo. If they want to tell you, they’ll include that as they discuss the meaning behind it. If they don’t tell you, that story is meant to stay private.

Don’t read a tattoo made up of text out loud, and then simply wait for the person to respond to you. That’s not an engaging way to start a discussion. Asking, “Could you tell me what your arm tattoo says?” is better.

Never touch or grab someone’s arm, leg, or any other body part in order to examine the tattoo. Similarly, do not try to adjust someone’s clothing in order to get a better look of the tattoo underneath. Respect personal space.

As in any conversation, pay attention to your tone of voice: genuine interest will win out over judgmental disdain every time.

Things not to say (that our friends have actually heard)

• “That must have hurt!” Maybe, maybe not. Pain tolerance varies.
• “Tattoo-to-teeth ratio.” That’s a rather classist way of looking at people who get tattoos (remember: good tattoos are expensive). Or are you making an assumption about someone’s personal hygiene?
• “You can handle a tattoo but not (surgery, IV insertion, shots at the doctor’s office, tooth pain, etc.)?” The pain of getting a tattoo is not the same kind of pain experienced during dental work, shots, or even childbirth — there’s no comparison.
• “Do you regret getting it?” If they do, they certainly don’t want to discuss it with a stranger.
• “You’d look better without them.” Would you ever say, “You’d look better without that terrible haircut/outfit/makeup”? (We hope not!)
• “You shouldn’t get anymore.” The number of tattoos a person has is a personal choice.
• “Why would you do something like that?” Remember, they’d tell you if they feel like sharing. Reasons for permanent body art are often very personal.
• “Why don’t you get 666 tattooed on your forehead?” That doesn’t even make sense.
• “So-and-so got Hepatitis C from a tattoo.” Strict health regulations in reputable tattoo businesses make this concern out-of-date.

Expressing your opinion on the tattoo

There is a very simple rule for this: if you dislike someone’s tattoo — just like if you dislike someone’s personal appearance in any way — keep that thought to yourself.

In other words, follow the classic rule: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

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