Sometimes we read articles about foreign cultures in distant lands—the Mongolians, say, or a religious sect on the border of Arizona and Utah—and we wonder at their strange rites. Not only do we wonder, we laugh at them, since they’re so stupid and ridiculous. Kissing a spoon four times before slinging mud in your baby’s face? Those Absinthians are really crazy.
What we don’t realize is that all people, regardless of their culture, have well-established social habits of which they may not be consciously aware. And, to an uneducated observer from another culture, those social habits appear illogical and incomprehensible, if not downright perverse. The bone-crushing handshake of an American used-car salesman, for instance, is quite logical to him, a sign of his being friendly and interested in doing business with you. To a countess in Westphalia it’s a criminal act.
A Parisian student of mine once confessed that she was always uncomfortable when she arrived for her lessons, because I didn’t shake her hand in the exact French way (which of course is quite different from the Bonecruncher). On another occasion I was having lunch with a French friend who became agitated when someone else put a loaf of bread belly-side up on the table. It’s just not done! As it happens, centuries ago French people put the loaves of bread that were meant for lepers belly-side up, to distinguish them from the bread of healthy people. There were no lepers at our lunch table, but that didn’t reassure my friend in any way.
It’s not possible to foresee every culture’s habits and quirks, particularly since so much of it goes unspoken and unexplained. But it’s possible to suspend your critical judgments of people who live differently from you. By that I don’t mean to say that every behavior is equally acceptable, only that before you approve or disapprove of something you must first understand it.
Shaking my student’s hand as she expects me to is a solution. Another is to become playful, bring the phenomenon to the surface, share the details of my culture with her, laugh at myself for being crazy, and perhaps laugh with her for being anxious over a handshake. To dismiss her anxieties altogether is no solution at all.
In this series I’ll look at the quirks of social habits and how they shape our perceptions and behaviors. I’ll tell you about the time a young American woman thought I was molesting her when I was just being “Brazilian.” I’ll tell you about the day I had to eat pig’s knuckles because politeness demanded it of me. And I’ll tell you about the man who insisted on licking the soles of my feet to celebrate the birthday of King Stavros the Injudicious.