Friday, May 10, 2013

Cross-cultural manners

SorryI went to a local pub the other night for some conversation, away from thoughts of work.  My companion ordered a drink and dessert.  The hostess glanced at me, then turned, and prepared the bill.  I was surprised not to be asked what I wanted, but pulled out my debit card.  She admonished me for offering a card as payment since there was a minimum purchase required, then said she’d take it “this once”.  Finally, transaction completed, she said ‘Oh, did you want something too?”

Swallowing simple irritation, I considered the proper response.  Ignore it and order?   Make an issue about it? 

Fundamentally, Was I being treated rudely on purpose?  And, given that one or the other of us was in the wrong, what was the right response?

As an expat,I try to be sensitive both to having manners (to fit in) and to not expect my manners in others (to be tolerant).  Americans are not the most mannered people in the world to begin with, and my go-go life is more likely to result in negligent impatience than observant adherence to local mores.  My parents were always careful to insist that we learned and practiced manners though.  Business etiquette was pressed on me by salesmen in my early career (although they never managed to slow down my eating).  I try to be on time and respectful; I’m not as good about having clean shoes and remembering names.

The British make an absolute fetish of good behaviour.  In part, it’s long tradition, in part it’s the unspoken rules that keep everyone civil on a crowded island.  I’m convinced that it’s partly a competitive sport: one-upsmanship on a par with knowing the names of more species on a walk and doing well at Quiz Night. 

Theater critic Henry Hitchings considered the issue in his book “Sorry! The English and their Manners” (I heard him interviewed on the Monocle Weekly Podcast #16).  His thesis is that manners are a expression of class.  They allow the English to recognize one another within a class, and to know the skills that must be acquired to  become part of another.  They are social signifiers rather than social lubricants.

table settingI think that this affects how I perceive slights in the UK, different from elsewhere.

In the US, I expect friendliness instead of manners, and don’t read significance into social lapses unless they seem unfriendly.

In the Netherlands, I probably miss a lot of subtle thing because my language skills aren’t good enough to judge.  I’m just happy if a conversation produces an outcome anywhere close to what I intended.

But, among the British, forever correcting, I feel like I’m held to a standard.  Not a problem: I’m living in their country I will live by their expectations.

It’s probably further confused by the similarity in language: I understand just enough to think I understand it all.  And I do tend to read in: I’m certain that the British have two distinct phrasings of the word “Sorry”, one for expressing remorse and another for conveying “Who do you think you are?”

Still, my logic is that if the British know correct manners and take them seriously, then lapses in manners must be intentional.

Manners are hugely important for expats to get right, both to fit in and to understand. And I generally try not to take offense when someone seems rude.  I’ll get frustrated in private, but turn the other cheek in public.

And at the pub? 

I simply decided not to order anything more.  Their loss.

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