Monday, February 23, 2009

Being polite in a foreign land - harder than it sounds!

Social conventions and customs are wonderful things. For the green expat, getting it wrong can be humiliating though fortunately rarely serious. I’ve commented before about how etiquette blunders can cause red faces, but sometimes over-eager advice can also be misleading.

Take someone I know who went to live in Australia. Somebody ‘helpful’ told him that to spare his blushes, when invited to a barbecue he should ‘take his own plate’. Thinking that there was clearly a national shortage of crockery in Australia, he duly did so. Upon arrival his shiningly empty plate presented at the food counter was greeted with looks of blank incomprehension. Apparently ‘the plate’ referred to here, was meat or other food contribution for the Barbie not a physical plate in itself.

He said he would have preferred to arrive with nothing rather than present an empty plate and he was less than appreciative of the imprecise advice he’d received!

Another expat I know in France was told by an equally well intentioned cultural expert that in France one never took wine as a dinner gift for the hosts because this insulted their own cellars and wine collection. That evening the expat visitor proudly announced to the dinner party how his research had saved his blushes, only to be shocked to find that none of the French people present had a clue what he was talking about. They had never heard of any such convention. They welcomed gifts of wine and emptied them without any sense of ‘offence’ at all!

Advice on language use can also be wrong. Some language guides for those languages that have a formal and familiar structure for ‘YOU’ offer a good example. Many insist from page-1 that the formal version of the language is now virtually obsolete and “of course” everyone younger than about 125 automatically uses the familiar.

Armed with this advice the expat rampages around firing off their newly learned ‘familiar’ vocabulary and grammar in all directions.

Suddenly the realisation hits home! They’re causing confusion and possibly offence because, against all advice to the contrary, the formal form of the language is not only alive and kicking but also in fact de-rigueur in many situations.

So, why are all these experts so full of good advice that is, sadly, sometimes so wrong?

Quite simply, the world is a complex and diverse place. The social customs in one area may be different to those in another. It’s not unusual to find customs and practices in one village that are significantly different to those in another only a few kilometres away.

Age can also be a factor as what someone of 20 thinks of as ‘acceptable’ may well not be what people of 45 think polite.

It is a brave person who offers advice on everything to do with the social customs in a country and however good they are, they’re going to be wrong from time to time!

If you really want to do some background research you can try searching the web for your destination country and ‘etiquette’ or ‘customs’. Some of these sites are excellent mines of information and you’ll have fun browsing. Just remember to keep a sense of proportion and don’t try and comply with every single subtle nuance from day-1 in your new country or you’ll never leave home without a pile of inhibitions.

Almost everyone enjoys talking about the customs and conventions of their country, area or town, so don’t be afraid to ask locally as well. You’ll learn a lot and local people will appreciate your interest!

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