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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?


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 1st, 2007 02:31 pm (UTC)
Heh...my answer would be waaay too long for here, but you know most of it anyway, I think. :)
Mar. 1st, 2007 05:53 pm (UTC)
Nooooo. It could never be too long for this post. It needs a long answer so that it doesn't look too long itself.

Please? *puppy eyes*
Mar. 2nd, 2007 12:43 pm (UTC)
Ooookay *falls for puppy eyes*, I rather liked Ruv's set-up, so I'm going to do the same with a few examples below:

Malaysia (chinese community):
Thank the giver, but open your presents in private You don't want to shame the giver, should the present be less valuable or smaller than what would be expected or than what has been given by others.

Blind superstitious beliefs by intelligent and educated people "She had a blood transfusion from an European and gave birth to a mixed baby.", "If you go out with wet hair at night, you'll se ghosts.".

The whole woman must serve the man mentality I'll just let that one stand on its own.

Extreme politeness Everyone must be addressed with the polite form and Mr. and Mrs. Funnily enough, the Swiss can very rude and offensive, while being polite at the same time - very much like the concierge from French Kiss.

Rigid rules for everything Everything is regulated here by actual or unspoken rules. When you can hang up your laundry, when you can weed your garden, when you can take out your trash etc. It's confining, but I guess it's necessary when you live so many people together in such a small area.

RUDE shop assistants Just had a post about that one. :)

Blowing your nose loudly at the table As a Dane, I find it utterly disgusting. The Swiss don't bat an eye.

The Greeks:
The inability to give a straight answer "Would you like to eat fish or steak?" - "I don't mind, whatever you want." - "No, you're the guest, please tell me what you prefer. I don't mind either way." - "No, no really, I don't mind." - "Are you sure?" - "Yes, absolutely. I don't mind." - "Okay, let's eat fish then." - *sulks* - "Would you rather eat steak?" - "No, no I don't mind" *sulks* - *everyone goes to fish restaurant, sits down and receive menus.* - "I don't like fish" - *party gets up and leave for steak restaurant*.

The Drama There is a reason why the Greek Tragedies are the Greek Tragedies.

The inability be at a certain place at a certain time This is not just the Greeks, though, it goes for the Chinese, the Malays and the Italians I've met as well.

The other way round, I've learned that Danish humour, directness, friendliness and irony is seldom understood by foreigners, apart from other Scandinavians, Brits and Aussies. The Swiss and the Greeks merely don't seem to get it, the Asians probably find me rude and unfeminine, while the Americans find me rude and hurtful. So I've learned to curb the friendly, ironic banter, to cut out the jokes, and to address people with Mr. and Mrs. instead of "Hey John!". I've also learned that as a Dane, I have very little tolerance for arrogance*, whereas most other cultures don't seem to remark on it unless it's misplaced or exaggerated. It's all a matter of adjusting, I guess.

*In Denmark everyone is considered equal, you'll address a cleaning lady, a waiter, a university professor and a doctor with the same amount of respect and friendliness. Mr. and Mrs. and polite forms of addressing people is generally only used for the royal family, people over the age of 75 and some ministers.

Mar. 2nd, 2007 12:56 pm (UTC)
Oh and I'm trying to work on my lack of patience. According to my mother it's also considered rude in Malaysia to answer a questions of "what would you prefer to eat?" with a straight-forward answer. So I'm likely missing some conversational and etiquette nuances there.

And also that, no, your neighbour really doesn't have to know about your bank-statement, your salary or the state of your sex-life. And that when someone asks you what you think of their new hairstyle, they do not necessarily want the god-honest truth. HAHAHAHAHA

I guess, I'm becoming more polished?
Mar. 3rd, 2007 08:53 am (UTC)
*In Denmark everyone is considered equal, you'll address a cleaning lady, a waiter, a university professor and a doctor with the same amount of respect and friendliness. Mr. and Mrs. and polite forms of addressing people is generally only used for the royal family, people over the age of 75 and some ministers.

This is the way I was raised, too, though I would address newly-met elders (20+ yrs or so) with Mr/Mrs.
Mar. 1st, 2007 02:55 pm (UTC)
our species is very weird and the diversity is wonderfully chaotic. is why i started out as an anthropologist, the love of such diversity
Mar. 1st, 2007 08:09 pm (UTC)
Weird is an apt term, and I like "wonderfully chaotic" even more. *g* Every time I begin to think that I'm a very openminded person, I run into a wall that shows me how small my thinking can be.
Mar. 1st, 2007 09:28 pm (UTC)
it is not that your thinking is small, you (as do we all) just have no idea how deep your cultural assumptions go. my favorite example is that in parts of Nepal, to stick out your tongue at someone is to show them the utmost respect, and when you shake your head, it means yes, when you knod your head, it means no.


to most folks around the world, these customs are antithetical to their own.
Mar. 1st, 2007 08:02 pm (UTC)
I can't say I've run into anything like that, but in some areas of North Philadelphia it's perfectly okay to open food in the supermarket, taste it, and decide not to buy it.

Mar. 1st, 2007 08:06 pm (UTC)
That is definitely wrong. Starting to eat and drink before checking out...that's okay (because I've done it *g*), but then not paying for it???
Mar. 2nd, 2007 02:33 am (UTC)
I know nothing about Mayotte; these stories delight me.

I've spent a little time on Vanuatu, which was described last year as the "happiest place on earth". The locals' attitudes to time, property, community and social responsibility are very different from anything I'd ever seen before. For example:

  • You get respect only if you demand it. The Ni Vanuatu grow a lot of coconuts - and that's a sign of wealth. It is all right to take coconuts from your neighbour unless he puts a "taboo fern" on top of a coconut shell on a stick, which means you're explicitly not allowed to take coconuts from that place.
  • Threats are a kind of honour system. A graffito seen on the side of a sea-side weather-station: I can fak anyone who destroys my canoe! Presumably this is to protect a canoe that is occasionally left on the beach there - it wasn't there when I looked, so either the owner was out in it, or someone had destroyed it and the owner was off to give him a good fakking.
  • Food spoils quickly and there's not much refrigeration. This means that when you have surplus, you feed as many people as you can. When you don't have enough, you get a feed from someone else. It also means that you fetch the food just before you eat it - which means that mealtimes are always "whenever".

  • It's tropical, and ease and economy of energy are paramount. For example, there are scrawny little scrub chickens on some of the islands - they look a bit like roadrunners. If you're in a vehicle with a guide and one runs across the road he's quite likely to accelerate to kill it for dinner. The very idea of getting a free chicken with no effort had him grinning the way my father might if he had a winning lottery ticket.

  • Relationship before task; lack of alpha personalities A recent cyclone had washed out a major bridge on the ring-road circling the island. Vehicles were banked up on both sides. Gradually, in a way that reminded me of ants, people went from milling in small groups chatting amiably, to tossing the occasional rock into the river, to shifting logs and timbers to make a causeway. There was no sense of central management or coordination in this. People just individually did whatever they thought fit, and gradually a causeway got built.

    As a one-tonne truck was the first to try crossing the causway, and people loaded up in the back to stop it from being washed off by from the strong current. Everyone was cheering as it made the crossing. Once it did that, all the other vehicles had a go, and people went on their way. Nobody waited for "the authorities", and no central leader figure emerged at any time.

  • Trust, unless there's concrete threat For reasons to do with my own forgetfulness, I entered Vanuatu on an invalid passport (this was pre 2000). The friendly customs officials waved me in and told me to go and see the consulate some time to get a new one. No visa, no "where are you staying" or "what are you doing here". I got off an Australian aircraft; I had some cash so who cares?
  • Community over convenience While hopping to another island by light aircraft my wife was suffering food poisoning and very ill. She had her head on my lap and her ear was a sort of bright green colour. Mid-way, we diverted to some other island to pick up a pregnant woman who was having labour troubles, and take her to a base hospital at our destination. Nobody blinked at this except me - largely because Mrs Drava was semi-comatose in my lap. But the rear of the aircraft was rather funny, with me and Mrs D in one seat - her moaning, and a woman huuuge with child in the seat behind us - also moaning, and some grandma lady next to her fanning her with a bamboo fan, telling both of them "Shhh.. Shh..."

  • Ask for whatever you want I made friends with a pianist/singer called Amozi while I was in Vanuatu. His dream was to get a new electric keyboard from the Trading Post in Australia. He had no compunction about asking me to find one, buy it (he didn't specify what kind), send it to him (no idea how I'd do that), and he'd "send me money" once I'd done that.
  • mnfaure
    Mar. 2nd, 2007 07:16 am (UTC)
    Wow, those are great examples, Ruv, and give me even more to think about.

    Would you mind sharing your reactions to these events or your thought processes? Are you able to refrain from passing judgement? Do you just observe, analyze, and note? For the things that you might have considered odd (like the guy wanting you to buy the piano), how did you handle his "request"?
    Mar. 2nd, 2007 11:25 am (UTC)
    Would you mind sharing your reactions to these events or your thought processes?

    Sure, but lest you think me too evolved, I should put it in context. Ten years before spending time in Vanuatu I had a brief expatriate love affair with Japan. It did my head in, but left me cosmopolitan, worldly-wise and sophisticated (just ask me - I'll tell you. :D)

    It's not visiting to another culture that does your head in. It's immersing yourself there; trying to find that part of it that you want to call home.

    There's no getting around it. We don't just need to survive in a place; we need to feel that we are valued, respected, welcomed and belong. Until we feel that, we create a sphere of our native culture around us. It entraps and stifles us; creates friction, cognitive dissonance. We want to escape our cultural blinkers but there's no place safe to escape to.

    Meanwhile, one part of our mind is trying to accept, accommodate, welcome. Another part is simply trying to adapt, camouflage, survive. A third part is snarling like a wolf (hence my pic above), trying to keep the threats away until we feel safe. There's no reconciling these three parts; they each claim their own turf. The longer we know we're staying, the more these parts fight.

    In Japan, I was enormously judgmental, contemptuous, brittle. I was less than my best as a person. But at the same time I was striving more than I ever had before, to accommodate, accept and support. I was also becoming - in some part of me at least - Japanese. Although it wasn't my native culture, I discovered that everything they did differently had resonance in a part of me. That part grew. I learned more about respect, humility, sacrifice and kindness then than I had in all the years since I was a child. Not because the Japanese were better at these things, but because they helped take some of the distortion out of the mirror of my own self-reflection. It made me question and take new decisions from a broader perspective.

    Looking back, I realise that much of the fighting I did was against myself, against seeing a clearer reflection. The Japanese weren't pushing me. My conflict was internal.

    When I visited Vanuatu I did what I always try and do when visiting another culture - I rolled my sleeves up, dived in, swam in the soup and drank it. But this time I knew that it would be an expatriate romance with all of the tumult that this caused. I was ready for that, rejoiced in the bittersweet of it, laughed at my own conflicts and frustrations.

    What Vanuatu taught me was that you could have joy, fun, belonging without the trappings of comfort, affluence, prestige - or even kindness and compassion. You can simply rejoice in company because for the moment, you and your companion are both alive and in the same place in the world. And you are mirrors of one another.

    It also taught me that when you build your homes out of coconut palms, your life is a very fragile thing. A stiff wind can blow it all away. Under those circumstances, why the hell shouldn't you go up to someone who makes 100 times your annual income and say pay my electricity bill. And say it without apology and with dignity. Not because you deserve it, but because it's what you want and you have no other idea of how to get it.

    It also taught me that when you understand that the world is more than homes made of coconut palms, you can say with kindness and without condemnation, No. I want to sit on the beach with you, and watch the waves.

    Because your life too is like a grass hut, and you too have needs and you don't have to apologise for them either. :)

    Hope that helps. :D

    Mar. 3rd, 2007 09:08 am (UTC)
    It's not visiting to another culture that does your head in. It's immersing yourself there; trying to find that part of it that you want to call home.

    Yes, the same thing happened to me when I moved to France. The first trip was to work as an au pair, and so I didn't treat the country like my new home, rather like the setting for an adventure. Since I didn't speak French at the time, I found adjusting very difficult and was prone to treating with disdain things that were different to *my* way of doing/thinking.
    I was projecting my own discomfort and insecurities onto a people and country. The longer I stayed, the easier it was to realize that I was doing the reflection dance you mention.

    After a brief stint back in the States, I returned to France to get married and so began the true immersion and the easing away of the blinkers. I now feel very at home there and tend to marvel at happenings/reactions/etc coming out of the States.

    we need to feel that we are valued, respected, welcomed and belong.

    You know, I don't know if this is true in my case. I'll have to think on it some more.

    Thanks for elucidating.
    ( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


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