The Wayfarer (mnfaure) wrote,
The Wayfarer

How much do manners matter?

Before coming to Mayotte, I thought that the words, or concepts of, if you will, "please," "thank you," and "you're welcome" were givens in every society, as is the polite formulation of making a request. Not so, or in my dealings with the Mahorais, I have not found them to be a natural part of conversations and interactions.

It isn't as if the words please and thank you don't exist, either in French--the official language--or Shimaoré, the native language of the Mahorais. French has the formal "vous" for "you" which gives polite another dimension (and rudeness, for that matter, but that is another discussion altogether), which the Mahorais eschew completely. All right; fair enough. I prefer the less formal "tu" in any case. It makes conjugating verbs a lot easier to have only one form.

But those polite forms of request making (ex: Would you mind...? Could I...?) that I mentioned? I can tell you that they exist in French, too, but I don't know enough Shimaoré to comment on structure and phrasing. Nonetheless, for at least three generations now, the Mahorais have been taught French in school, so I'm sure the concept is not foreign to them. However, when someone comes to my home or stops me in the street wanting something, they don't ask, they state their desire or they demand.

A neighbor comes to our house and says: Do you have onions?
J: Yes
Neighbor: I need onions.
J: OK. How many?
Neighbor hides face behind a pole and doesn't answer.
J goes to get onions. He gives her four, saying, "How many do you need?"
N takes them and replies, "Two. Bye," then walks off without saying thanks.

It is nighttime, around 8, and two neighbor kids--both four years old--come to my gate. They sit on the step and say, "Hodi?" (anyone home?) and then "Miquela!" over and over until I get the door open and go outside.
M: Hello, boys. How are you tonight?
Boy 1 gives me a hug, and behind me, J reminds me that we have some cookies to give away (he bought them and didn't like them) but that now might not be the time (so as not to encourage such visits. Remember what I said before about invasive?). However, I had already uttered, "Would you boys like some cookies?"
Boys: Yes!
I hold out the cookies; they snatch at them, but I say, "What do you say first?"
Boys think for a few moments, then: Merci! They take the cookies and run off. Not five minutes later, "HODI! Miquela!"
M: Yes?
Boys: We want cookies.
M: No, I'm not giving you any more cookies.
Boy 2: I want cake.
M: I don't have any cake for you.
Boy 1: Give me chocolate.
M: No.
...And so it went for several minutes with nary a please or thank you.

Miquela is walking by the open air market. She is greeted by a Mahorais acquaintance.
Acquaintance: Do you have your car?
M: No, I'm out getting exercise.
A: Where's your car?
M: My husband has it.
A: Are you buying something?
M: No, just passing by.
A: I'm going to buy some corn from that lady there, and you're going to pay for it.
M: *shocked and embarrassed* I don't have any money on me. (Which is true)
A: That's okay. I'll tell her you'll come back with it later.
M: I'm not coming back this way today.
A: It doesn't matter. It can be tomorrow or the day after.
M stammers goodbye and walks off without saying yea or nay to the corn purchase. The corn costs a measely 20c per ear, but I wouldn't have bought it for her because of the way she handled the situation with "telling" me what I was going to do instead of asking me.

Lunch time. J is grilling chicken on the front porch. Neighbor kids keep poking their heads through the gate, watching him, sometimes talking to him. One boy is very persistant and looks a bit miserable. I ask him, "Are you hungry?" He nods.
M: Would you like a piece of chicken?
Boy stares but doesn't say anything.
M: Maybe you would like a mango instead?
Boy nods. I give him the mango; he runs off with it (no thank-you). J and I are sitting by the open window, eating. Someone comes onto the porch, and I look over to see the boy standing there, staring at us.
Boy: I want another mango.
M: Did you already eat your other one?
Boy: No, I put it in my house. I want another one.
M: Well, I don't have any more mangoes for you right now.
Boy runs off and then comes back with an older friend. Friend and boy stare at us, watching us eat our chicken. And they stare, and stare, and stare. So, we offer boy number 2 a piece of chicken or a mango. He takes a mango and runs off with it. We shut the shutters and try to finish our meal in peace. I really can't stand the thought of kids being hungry.

And then there was the €500 water bill conversation that was too surreal for words. The lady never actually came out and said, "Pay my water bill," but it was insinuated and the conversation was full of meaningful glances and long pauses where I was meant to leap heroically into the fray and offer to do it. When I expressed, for at least the third time how difficult the situation must be for her, she said, "OK, goodbye," and walked off before I could wish her the same.

The time I hear "s'il te plaît" the most is when I'm walking through the market and then it is, "Madame, please, bananas. Please, Madame, garlic."

At first these kinds of situations really, really bothered me. Now they only kinda sorta bother me. I have to chant to myself, "It's only a cultural difference; it's only a cultural difference," and most times that works. At least such situations engender a laugh and a bemused moment or two of head-shaking.

Related, and yet not, is the very African view that the Mahorais have regarding personal space and queueing up. If you leave a gap between you and the person in front of you in line, rest assured that someone will try to sneak in there. Sometimes, even without the space, they will barge in and try to get checked out first. That is when Miquela starts breathing fire and setting things straight. If I have a cartful and you have one to five items, if you are polite and not pushy, I will offer to let you go first. But the moment you start acting like it is your right, you are in trouble. And I don't just turn into a fire breathing dragon when people are encroaching on me. If I see it happening further back in the line to people too timid to speak up, I'll open my big yap. (This is the same Miquela who ripped the interior handle off the door of her car while furiously yanking it open to stop a guy from breaking into someone else's vehicle. Who knew that I had superpowers brought on by outrage?)

I have also never lived in another country where it is necessary to put up posters in supermarkets, schools, and hospitals that read, "For the hygiene of all, please refrain from spitting." These reminders truly are necessary because the Mahorais will hawk up and spit whatever they want, wherever they want.

Being a writer and, by extension, a student of my fellow creatures, I get to thinking about how I tend to go into both life and fiction assuming that all people, granted with minor to major differences, think basically like I do on fundamental things such as manners and how to address strangers, friends, and acquaintances. Being a fan of common courtesy and politesse, I assume that others will act and react like my society and I think they should; hence my approach to different cultures in my books takes several passes before they stop resembling each other. And moving to Mayotte has shown me just how much more diverse they can get without straying into Fantasyland.

How about you? Have you encountered societal differences that you found irritating/enlightening? If so what, where, and why?
Tags: life in mayotte, mayotte, musing amuses the muse, straddling that cultural divide
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