Manners over Culture

Manners over Culture

Do you make people take their shoes off in your house? Unless you live in a Japanese temple, you shouldn’t get to do this. I HATE taking off my shoes just to go in the house. I slide all over the floor, I know my outfit is ruined, and I will spend the rest of my time in your home worrying about how we’ll safely escape in case of fire, because we’ll be those idiots who ended up barefoot in the front yard. I am in no way related to Honey Boo-Boo, so standing barefoot in your yard is not something that appeals to me.

And yet. If you invite me into your house and ask me to take off my shoes, I will.

“Manners cost you nothing; ignorance can cost you everything.”

I love this quote because it’s so true! And if I could modify it slightly, I’d say that manners cost you nothing, but mean everything. Good manners trump everything else.

While this wild and crazy idea of manners being important is true no matter where you are – family holidays come to mind, ahem – I notice that it’s especially important while traveling.

Part of why we travel – or at least, part of why I travel – is to lose myself and gain a little bit of the world. If you could somehow carry home the sophistication of the French, the wry humour of the Brits, the hospitality of the Singaporeans, and the sheer joie de vivre of the Tanzanians, well…wouldn’t you?

Yet, what I see so often when I’m abroad are people very stubbornly clinging to their own culture, despite the fact that they’re in a new place, and their home culture doesn’t hold much water.

For example, in France it’s considered basic good manners to say hello to a shop proprietor as soon as you enter, and to thank them upon leaving, even if all you did was browse around. Same goes for entering and exiting a city bus, and leaving a restaurant or museum.

In America, we don’t place as much importance on the hello/goodbye ritual, and it’s rare when someone actually calls out, “Thank you!” to the driver of our local Muni bus before she pushes through the melee, myself included. It’s not our culture in America to do all of this greeting and thanking all day long. Perhaps it should be, but it isn’t. So when Americans catch French shop owners rolling their eyes and giving icy replies in French, though you heard them speaking English just moments ago, it’s not because they’re rude, it’s because YOU ARE. You didn’t say hello, you didn’t abide by the good manners of the country you’re visiting.

In certain Asian countries, it’s considered rude or invasive to look someone in the eye for an extended period of time. In America, sustained eye contact is good manners and part of a respectful culture. In those particular Asian countries, it’s very bad manners, invasive and rude, and so, I look away, even though it makes me feel awkward.

When I was traveling in Tanzania, my friend and I were invited for a family dinner in someone’s home. Being the eco-pretentious 23 year old I was, I was proudly vegetarian with no flexibility. Until they brought out the beef stew they’d spent all day making in honor of our visit. It was not within my culture to eat meat, but good manners mandated that I eat, smile, and say thank you, I’d love more! 

It can feel uncomfortable or inauthentic to give way on your own culture, but the savvy traveler knows that manners trump culture every single time. Researching a bit about the manners and culture of the country you’re visiting, and being observant of the locals around you can help you fit in and travel more seamlessly. Remember, nobody likes The Ugly American and nobody wants to be one either. If you can’t stand the smoking, stay out of France. If you can’t handle the meat, stay out of the East African’s kitchen. It’s pretty simple.

This also, I think, applies here in the states. We live in a neighborhood with a very strong immigrant population and part of the culture of that population entails a lot of shoving to be first, to get in front, to get ahead. Because I’m in my own country and intimately familiar with my own culture, I feel no remorse about looking the shovers in the eye and firmly moving myself back to where I was in line.

And while I do, I’m always thankful I have my shoes on.

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