Some cultural nuances dissected, with not much of reverence or tact.
“A handshake is a universal token of friendliness here. Be it in office, or at home or in the street when two cab drivers greet each other. Something that may not be done even in offices back in Trichur.”
I came across this at a post in the Girl-with-big-eyes’ blog and was reminded of something that happened a very long time back. I had gone back to India for hols and was attending a friend’s brother’s wedding in Trichur. This friend and I had been to school together, but after high school, we had gone our separate ways. She was introducing me to her new college classmates, and I, like a normal person would do, held out my hand for a “how-do-you-do” handshake. The guy looked positively shocked. My friend (we both had studied in a conservative all-girls convent school) looked so scandalized that I thought she would faint. Well, now that I had shook my hands with one, if I didn’t shake hands with the rest, that would be too much favouritism for everyone to stomach. So, I bravely kept at it. After shaking hands with abt three ppl, everyones gazes made it pretty clear they thought I was an alien. Oh what the heck – to my credit, I shook hands firmly and politely with all 8 of the new people I met that day. Trust me, I was embarrassed – I had somehow forgotten the old Trichurian rule of just nod and smile when you are introduced. But I didn’t think much about it until on a recent trip to India, I came across one of the guys I had met that time and he remembered me as the “girl who shook hands”! I am not trying to belittle Trichur – come on, I love my home town, but really! whats wrong with a handshake?
Its very intriguing how differently people across the world greet each other. Considering how much importance a first impression makes, I don’t think we give enough thought to this.
I never grew up with the tradition of touching my elders’ feet – but I am expected to do so whenever I meet the parents of my close friends from the North. And my recently married cousin’s wife is from the North and she does what my dad calls “a dive” whenever she visits our home. But what surprised me was that my mom was very impressed with her ‘humility’ and ‘good behavior’. Now, I just hope my mom doesn’t get it into her head that it will be a good way for me to show my respects – come on mom! its just a Northie tradition.
Farther away from home, Germans and Americans squeeze your hand! It doesn’t help that some of them are tall and big and strong – I have to remind myself every time “Squeeze, Su, Squeeze harder!” – lest I come across as not polite enough. I had a French friend who insisted on kissing me on my cheeks everytime we met. I was visibly taken aback the first few times, and he nonchalantly explained, “I am French. I can kiss you when we meet”. Hmm..I never really found out if it was just his greeting for girls or if it was really the French greeting.
A Brazilian acquaintance would hug me everytime we met – now I had reasons not to piss off this person – so I googled and found out thats really how the Brazilians do it – and so I endured the hugs. To be honest, it was really only a symbolic hug, nothing that makes even a touch-queasy person like me uncomfortable. But bottom line is, if you are in Brazil (and I have heard this is true for some other SouthAm cultures), you might wanna give hugsy a try, or at least be open to it.
In many Western cultures, men stand up before they are introduced to someone important – and the chivalrous ones stand up for women too. Standing up shows politeness and respect. Same goes for India – but its not the men who stand up – its usually the younger person who stands up for the elder one. I remember I did this once in Singapore, and was met with a startled “is-there-a-thorn-in-your-seat?” look.
I have been asked an umpteen times why Indian men are “so touchy” with each other. People, please dont take offence at me – I have already endured enough being at the wrong end of this question. If you have been to Little India in Singapore, you will know what these people are asking about – you will see Indian men who walk around with their elbows on the next guys shoulder. I have even seen a few hold hands. Now if this was restricted to Little India in Singapore, I could have shooed off the question. But look around you, Indian men are definitely more touchy – with other men (thanks to Indian traditions, they stay off from women – thank god for that!). Even in business contexts, I have decidedly seen non-Indians squirm when an Indian man, with all friendliness and innocence, would give them a hard and a tad bit too long pat on the back.
People around here pass you their visiting cards like it is such a no-issue. Don’t make that mistake in Asia. In Singapore, make sure you look at it if you receive a visiting card. Look impressed – fake it if you aren’t – it would only do you good. I am told its even stricter in Japan – when you are handing out your visiting card, make sure its in such a way that its not upside down for the receiver – hold it at the two tips nearer to you with both your hands. And bow till your nose touches your feet ( Ok, I am just kidding abt the last one! ;o)) But talking abt the Japanese bowing – I have to relate this rather unrelated incident – our office building used to house a lot of Japanese banks as well. So one day I am in a crowded lift, late for a meeting and wishing people would just stop trying to squeeze into this lift – when in comes a Japanese dude – complete with a double-breasted jacket and pin-striped shirt (a digression in a digression: if you doing business with the Japs and you dont know what to wear – err on the formal side – even my strictly-Tshirts-only husband bought a couple of decent shirts and suits when he worked for a Japanese company). Back to single-level digression: The Japanese dude who was standing near the lift door bowed his head low and long as a gesture of good bye to his business associates outside the lift. And the supersensitive lift door that was almost about to close went back to being open! A few seconds of impatient wait – and the door is about to close again – and again our pin-stripe dude bows – i should change the adjective to ‘wide’! And strictly no exaggeration – this continued for three times until someone grunted in impatience and he finally limited his bow to a slight nod of the head!
Back to greetings and introductions – have you seen two Saudis greet each other? – They would grasp each other’s right hand, place the left hand on the other’s right shoulder and exchange kisses on each cheek. Even men to men! Thank god, I was a kid when I was living in Saudi Arabia and was generally ignored. And by the time I was old enough, they denied me a visa – do you know the country has no provisions for tourist visa! You have to be invited to enter- and to leave the country, even a foreigner needs an exit permit. So, if you cant get any of the Sheiks to invite you over, you are never gonna see the Laila & Majnu caves and their really pretty oases. This might come as a surprise – but I din’t have too many complaints about wearing the Burkha – where else can you go to the supermarket in your PJs? and never have to worry about a bad hair day? Before I forget – don’t ask a Saudi man about his wife – your intentions will be construed as everything under the sun except politeness.
This has turned out to be a rather long post and I just wanted to narrate my handshake crib. But before I sign off, just one more thing I learned today. In Germany, say only exactly what you mean. Do not exaggerate, do not use superlatives or superfluous words unless necessary. I asked my usual “Guten Morgen! How are you?” to a colleague in the lift today morning. She replied with a matter-of-fact “OK” and a polite return “How are you?”. It was morning, I had just had my coffee and was feeling chirpy – so I breezily said “Great”. And that was a mistake – I got back a quizzical “Great?”. People dont feel “great” around here without a reason – how could I have let that slip my mind? I spent the next couple of floors explaining how excited I am abt my vacation next week and thats why I am feeling “great”. Ah so! everyones happy – sorry – “OK!” again.
Alrighty, end of post. I have tried to put down whatever I can remember, but its kinda limited to my personal experiences. The ads from the world’s local bank have given us all a couple more insights. But there is so much more to go – I shudder at the many blunders I am yet to make.
Would love to hear it if you have any experiences/anecdotes/advice to share.