You have no manners (and neither have I), part 4: A Brazilian picks a fight with an Englishwoman in France

My friendly and dedicated correspondent, Lisa Marie (an Englishwoman who lives in France), is at it again. She wrote most thoughtfully about my recent posts on the subject of manners.

And you know what? The Brazilian in me disagrees with the Englishwoman in her, proving that I have no manners whatsoever! My retorts to Lisa Marie's remarks are inside the little boxes.

Hi Pedro,

I've been silently enjoying your posts on politeness. It's such a potentially hilarious subject. I think there are two kinds of behaviours which both fall into the category good manners but are very different. The first are all those culturally specific things that are often absurd (though not always) -- and have to be learned. The second category includes all those ways in which you attend to others to make them feel comfortable, e.g. listening to people until they've finished their desultory sentences, not staring over their shoulder in search of someone more interesting to talk to, not making other people aware of their lack of the first sort of good manners -- like the (probably apocryphal) hostess who drank her finger-bowl to save the blushes of a guest who had just drank his. It is easy to get the two categories muddled because some behaviours fall into both categories, for example -- remembering that guests arriving from far might want to rest and wash before they feel like being chatty and entertaining.

Er... I think both types of behavior you mention are similarly "cultural," speficic to certain groups and having to be learned. Listening to other peope until they finish their sentences, for instance: oftentimes in France and elsewhere, several people in a conversation might talk at the same time, without waiting for other people to finish what they're saying; and for people in such cultures, it's not considered rude in the least to converse in this manner. Indeed, I think ALL social behaviors are culture-specific; if that weren't the case, there would be SOME universal behaviors, and I can't think of even one that happens in all cultures, tribes, social settings, and so on.

I have problems in France with "Bonjour Madame X", to which, as you know the correct reply is "Bonjour Monsieur Y", (rather than plain unadorned "Bonjour" which I would find more natural)."Bonjour Monsieur Y" always makes me feel as if I've become trapped in a language primer and the words always come out of my mouth with audible (to me at any rate) inverted commas. I suppose any formulaic exchange learned later than childhood will always feel like an exercise in role-playing.

I think one can learn to absorb behaviors -- and make them become "natural" -- at any point in one's life, not in childhood alone; it's just that some things learned in childhood are more deeply rooted than others. Also, I somehow suspect that there are people in all groups who feel unhappy with the behaviors imposed by the traditions of the group. I'm sure there are Brazilians who don't like the cheek-kissing thingy, even though they grew up with it, and Frenchmen who are impatient with the "Bonjour, Madame" thingy.

Someone (Paul Theroux?) wrote 'The Japanese have so perfected good manners to the point that they have become almost indistinguishable from rudeness.'

Funny. And astute, I think. 

Your hypothetical American sins by ignorance (bad manners category 1). Your hypothetical baker is arrogant -- despising his customer as a barbarian just because he cannot imitate his (the baker's) local customs inferring thereby that he (the baker) would fare better if suddenly whisked accross the Atlantic -- but he only commits bad manners category 2 if the American becomes aware of the baker's mépris.

Warm beer is the result of incompetence. English real ale should be served at (cold) cellar temperature but not refrigerated.

Sure, sure. But for a Texan who ALWAYS drinks beer ABSOLUTELY FREEZING-COLD (and any other beverages that he perceives as beer-like), real ale served at cellar temperature will appear WARM, therefore WRONG. The guy doesn't know the difference between real ale and lager, doesn't know about the gustatory demerits of drinks that are too cold... and he doesn't know he's making tons of assumptions about everything in this world.

PS I forgot to say that "I was only being Brazilian" is not an excuse I've ever heard before... Do you think the recipient of your Brazilian-ness subsequently felt embarrassed to have reacted as she did? -- how culturally insensitive!

If that woman regretted flinching at my Brazilian-ness, she certainly hasn't sent me a telegram about it -- yet!

PPS The possibilities for painful embarrassment are endless. I haven't even begun to bang on about tertiary embarassment -- that's when you feel embarrassed on someone else's behalf because they miraculously fail to feel as embarassed as you feel they ought. Perhaps that's an English thing... 

Aha! The truth comes out! I knew most of the things you think, say, and feel arise from the assumptions you learned as a child in England!

Warm regards from the the patch of Brazilian jungle near the Bastille, Paris.

-- Pedro