Photo Credit: wili_hybrid
Most of my American friends live in horror of being that American tourist when traveling abroad. We’ve all heard the horror stories of the rude American traveler who behaved in a completely culturally insensitive way while traveling, working, or living abroad. The person who tromps into a Japanese house wearing his shoes. Or complains loudly about the stupidity of grocery stores being closed in Germany on a Sunday. No one wants to be that person, right? In an effort to not be that person, friends have told me they try their darnedest to follow that age old maxim: when in Rome, do as the Romans do – i.e. follow the customs of the land and culture that you find yourself in, even if they aren’t your customs. Nothing wrong with trying to be respectful in all ways possible of other cultures, right?
Well, no – there are some things wrong with that old rule about following other culture’s customs as much as possible. My main complaint with the “when in Rome” adage is that it simplifies a topic that defies simplification. Tossing the rule out in a conversation as a simple, true fact (as happened recently in the comments section at another blog that inspired this post) strikes me as similar to slapping a bandage on what is, in fact, a thorny issue. Sometimes it’s a good idea to follow the customs and traditions of another society while you’re visiting (or living in) it. But sometimes it can be a really bad idea…
The Three Key Considerations of Cultural Customs
When you’re faced with a differing tradition, custom, or habit of a culture you’re interacting with or a country that you’re traveling through/living in, the main decision you have, of course, is whether you want to follow this different custom, stick to your own ways, or try to chart some sort of middle path. In making this decision, I think there are three main considerations to take into account:
- Manners - Is this a simple rule of behavior that the people of this country find polite? Will behaving in my normal manner seem rude? Is this just one of those intercultural quirks that I should just follow without bothering my head about it?
- Practical – What will happen to me if I don’t follow this custom? What about if I do? Will my life or the life of others around be easier? Better?
- Ethics – Is this custom ethical according to my beliefs? Would I be violating my ethics to follow the custom – or would it be wrong of me to not follow it, given the particular facts of the culture/country I find myself in?
Let’s tackle those one at a time, hmmm?
Etiquette Considerations – or, did you just accidentally insult someone?
Every country has those little rules that you just gotta learn before traveling there – at least if you don’t want to be unintentionally impolite. In Germany you’re suppose to keep both hands on the table -or otherwise in sight – to be polite. Why? Because that’s the rule. End of story. In the US pointing at something with your middle finger alone is likely to be taken as an insult – in other countries pointing at all is rude.
These little rules – while occasionally difficult to remember – are easy enough to follow. If a cultural custom falls simply into this category, there’s really not much to say: just try to remember the custom, and follow the traditions of the land while you’re there. Often times these customs are the intercultural quirks I’ve blogged about previously – things that really aren’t worth worrying about. In this case, I’m all for the “go with the flow” and “when in Rome” rules of thumb. If it’s a behavior that you need to perform, just do it and roll on with your life. If it’s a cultural custom you observe others doing, smile, remember that that’s half of the fun of seeing a new place, and roll on.
Unfortunately, often you’ll be told or read that a certain behavior is “polite”, but there’s more to the story than just that. Very few people want to see you chew your food – that’s why many cultures have a rule about politely shutting your mouth while you chew. It just doesn’t look attractive. However, many cultures also have rules about what is acceptable or “polite” dress – especially for women – and somehow, I don’t think “it just doesn’t look attractive” is the reasoning going into that rule.
Generally speaking, customs which require different behavior from different sorts of people – men vs. women, young vs. old, rich vs. poor, low caste vs. high caste – are not just your simple old rules of etiquette. There’s something deeper – often something related to status or power – going on there, and this will have practical and ethical considerations.
A good example of this is the cultural tradition throughout much of South Asia (not all, certainly!) where men and women are expected to socialize separately – women in the kitchen, typically, and men in living room or elsewhere. Often, this is presented just as the “typical” thing – and it’d just be weird or rude to behave otherwise. While I’ve never seen this behavior (and would not follow it, whether in India or elsewhere), a blogger friend of mine, Gori Wife, has two posts here and here about her experiences dealing with it. Another example which came up in the original blog post I read is the drinking of alcohol by women in mixed company, particularly when there are older generations around.
Practical Considerations – or what’s the fallout of your behavior?
In choosing whether to follow a particular custom, it’s always important to think about what the effects will be whichever way you choose. Those of us in intercultural relationships run across this by the simple fact of being in an intercultural relationship – if you don’t think your intercultural relationship affects others, you’re hiding your head in the sand.
The “fallout” can be big or small – depending on the custom you’re choosing to follow or flout and the expectations of those around you. Suppose you try to follow the South Asian custom of eating with your hands – the fallout might simply be a small grin of pleasure from your dining partners and a few drops of curry on your lap. Failing to follow the custom might only mean a short moment of embarrassment when you ask for a fork.
To return to our example of the sexes socializing separately, it’s clear that, if you’re a woman (or man) in this situation, either the choice to follow the custom or not will have significant practical impacts. Either way, your social experience – who you talk with, what you do, when you eat, even – will be different. If you choose to follow the custom, despite being from another country, you may gain social “credit” if your behavior is unexpected, but welcome. If you don’t follow the custom, you may make others uncomfortable with your rudeness, and generate gossip or ill-will. Harsh, perhaps, but it’s silly to pretend otherwise. Or it may be that, while it is expected that natives adhere to the custom, foreigners get a free pass to behave as they’re used to – it all depends on the particular group of people you’re socializing with.
How much you care about these other people think of you, of course, is also a variable to consider when thinking of the practical aspects of following a cultural custom. As I’ve said several times before, I truly believe that those who would judge you harshly for infractions of unfamiliar traditions are not worth your concern. Of course, plenty of people think differently on this matter – this is something you’ve got to decide for yourself and your particular lifestyle.
Another example of the practical considerations that foreign females (and men, to a lesser extent) in India must consider is how modestly to dress in public. You may not give two hoots about what a stranger on a street in a foreign country thinks of you – but your experience and the attention you get from those strangers will most certainly be different depending on what you wear.
Ethical Considerations – Or, is this universally wrong?
This should be straightforward, right? Don’t follow or otherwise support other countries’ customs if you find them ethically wrong. When in (ancient) Rome, don’t have slaves like the Romans did. Or, for a more modern example, don’t eat that delicacy of dog meat you were offered if you think it’s immoral to eat man’s best friend. Yes, refusing the delicacy might be rude, and it might have practical considerations when your hosts get upset at your impoliteness, but it’s better to behave ethically. After all, it’s not like any of us are cultural relativists here. (Right? Right?)
Unfortunately, most cases aren’t that clear cut. Most Americans would consider it extremely unethical for children to work in factories instead of staying in school – but what other choices do an absolutely poor family (pdf) have in a developing country with limited social services? Do you refuse to do business with a company that employees child labor on that basis while visiting a developing country, as you might in your home country? I wouldn’t think that the ethical choice in India, while I absolutely would consider it the correct choice for a U.S.-based factory.
Or, consider the socializing example again: are there moral implications for going along with a custom of gender separation in socializing that you wouldn’t follow in your own country? As a someone who strongly believes in parity between men and women, I do not believe that the people should, in any way, be required to separate on the basis of gender if they don’t want to. (If all the gals want to chit chat in the kitchen, that’s a different thing). Generally, I believe that it’s important to push for a culture in every country that tolerates human variation and individuality. In other words, I’m a cultural libertarian. Because of my personal ethical beliefs, I don’t believe it’s generally right to follow cultural customs that require separate behavior from men and women. So I socialize with everyone at parties, and I drink alcohol when it’s available and sounds like a good idea – in any country or culture. (And I’ll gladly argue with anyone on these issues at said parties.)
Of course, practical considerations – and even etiquette – still must be balanced with ethical concerns. For instance, I still dress modestly in public in India, even though I would occasionally prefer to dress more along the standards I’m accustomed to here in the U.S. Why? Because, frankly, it’s simply not worth the hassle for me, especially given the tiny possible marginal effect I might have in changing cultural mores that require women to dress more modestly than men. Sometimes, it just ain’t worth it to try to fight the “good fight” at all times, in all places – especially when you’re experiencing a new culture. Just as you need to balance cultures within an intercultural relationship, you need to balance the various considerations of cultural customs in a broader intercultural context.
Good Manners Across Cultures
“When in Rome, Do As the Romans Do” is a poor phrase to follow when operating in a foreign country or culture. It may help in smoothing over the simpler cultural rules of etiquette, but it fails on the bigger, deeper, and broader facets of cultural traditions or customs. So what is a good rule? I like Emily Page’s advice here:
Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.
It’s inevitable that you’ll make a mistake when experiencing a new culture, and do something considered rude or impolite. Indeed, even many months or years after you first become familiar with a rule of etiquette, it’s likely that you’ll be making a mistake or two. (I still blush remembering the time I used an excessively formal version of “you” eight months into my stay in German.) And if you chose to flout a cultural custom because of ethical or practical concerns, you may end up looking incredibly rude. It’s okay.
As Emily Post reminds us, manners are, first and foremost, about consideration of others’ feelings. If you’re trying your best to be polite, to take into consideration the feelings of those around you, while also sticking to your ethical principles, then no one who has manners themselves should fault you. (And if they do, well, you’ve already heard my opinion on how much you should care.)
The biggest failing of that American tourist is not that he didn’t bother to read up on the customs of the country, nor that he doesn’t consider the practical effects of his actions, nor even that he goes around, demanding that the ethical realities of another country meet his simplistic, black & white view of right and wrong – it’s just an unwillingness to recognize the simple truth that Post points out.