Minding your manners

I had returned to India after having lived in the US for many years. My 80-year-old uncle was seated next to me at the dinner table during a get together. On seeing the variety of delectable treats on my plate, I began eating quickly. When I started to hiccup, my uncle placed a glass of water next to me. After gulping down the water, I turned to him and said “thank you”. He gave me a funny look and ignored me for the rest of the meal. I had an inkling that I had done something wrong but wasn’t sure what it was.

A few days later, my uncle came home wearing a nice sweater. I complimented him profusely and said “Do you think you can get one for my husband, please?” He frowned at me and walked away without a word. It was his wife, my aunt, who took me aside and informed me that he had been offended by my use of “thanks” and “please”. I was eventually forgiven for having ‘acquired the quaint manners of the western world’.

I’d always thought being polite was not just right but easy. The incident with my uncle brought home the message that cultural contexts determine what is polite and what is not. According to a report by Yale university, how one shows gratitude or “when thanks are avoided” can be as important as the expression of gratitude itself.

In Japan, to pause and then ask a favour is considered polite. In India that pause can offend, especially if it is family or close friends, as it is perceived that you are putting distance. Gift opening is another point of difference between cultures. In most Asian cultures, gifts are opened after the party is over or the guests have left. In many European cultures, it is considered polite to open the gift in front of the giver and express gratitude.

‘When in Rome, be a Roman’. We’re all familiar with this proverb that recommends adapting to the environment that we have been placed in. Such an adaptation can come with its own challenges. According to an article in Psychology Today, if the rules of the culture that we are adapting to interferes with our own personal beliefs it creates a quandary. For example, as a woman from a culture where shaking hands between the genders is verboten, what would you do in a Western business setting?

Now having lived in Bengaluru for over a decade, I can certainly relate to my uncle’s feelings. As he put it once, “While politeness is nice and good, it is best done in action rather than in words.” Alas, as Indians, we are good at putting things in action, particularly when we are not being polite or considerate. Whether it’s jumping queues, cutting people off while driving or being late to any event, we seem to have made it an art form.

I wonder if expressing things, or not, in words were accompanied by the act of being polite, we’d live in a less stressful society. As the queen of etiquette, Emily Post eloquently put it, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings
of others.”

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Minding your manners

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