East meets West: politeness and social conventions

When my husband and I decided to get married, we planned a first meet-up between the two families at my parents home. I was so worried to avoid the culture clash and careful not to put my in-laws in an uncomfortable situation that I wrote a short memo on the french table etiquette and expected polite behaviors.

After two years of marriage, I am a bit more relaxed on the topic even if I still find myself in awkward intercultural situations but here is already a few of our experiences:

  • Greetings

The very first time our families met, one of my sister and nephew greeted my sister-in-law (SIL) with the traditional french la bise . Basically they went straight to her and hit each of her cheeks against theirs quite quickly (watch this video for explanation). I had not mentioned this french specialty in my memo and my SIL was totally taken aback believing she was getting french kissed for greeting. It was awkward for 5 seconds and then all of us started laughing uncontrollably. Humor brings people closer to one another faster than any intercultural course.

To be honest in India I never truly know how to greet people, I have adopted a safe namaste with the accompanying hand gesture with a slight head bow which works fine when I meet people for the first time. In our closer circle I find it more challenging as younger people are expected to bend and touch their elders feet for a blessing each time they meet or take their leave. Though I like the concept of namaskar it still feel very foreign to me, I never really know who expects it from me or how to reacts when a kid touches my feet.

  • Controlling body noise or not

In France, we are taught early on to control our body noise. Boys and girls are expected to control their body and try to release gas as discretely as possible. Loud fart and burp are jokes that kids and teenagers do to annoy their parents. In case a mishap happen, one is expected to pretend like nothing happened or to do it as discretely as possible especially if you are a women.

I was very surprised when I saw a respectable 80+ auntie burp clearly at the end of one of my first lunch in India. There farting and burping is common and not seen badly at all. Releasing gas is a healthy and normal body mechanism and they just treat it as such. As long as one does not make a saxophone concert there is nothing awkward or disrespectful about it. A small burp at the end of a meal is a sign that you enjoyed the food.

My husband recently mentioned that he felt disgusted the first time a German colleague blew his nose loudly during a business meeting. For me this is a natural behavior and I would not have thought about it before he explained that in India one is expected to either leave the room to blow his nose or to do his as silently as possible.

  • Different hygiene and anti-germ prescriptions

My husband has a very peculiar way of drinking from a bottle, he manages to drink while keeping the bottle a few centimeters away from his lips. I have tried to do the same a couple of time but I can not seem to do it without making a mess. When sharing a bottle with others, I like the idea of not sharing your germs with everyone but I still prefer to use individual glasses whenever possible.

Indian eat everything; but liquid food; with their hands and the help of different types of flat bread. Of course before and after a meal everyone goes to rinse their hands. Contrary to me they can eat everything cleanly with only their 5 fingers. Growing up in France it was just unthinkable for me to think that I would eat with my hands on (one of) my wedding day. Eating with fork and knives is part of the french table etiquette since the 17th century. I have clear memories of my grand father hitting our fingers with the handle of a knife if we were caught touching the food with our fingers.

Politeness rules are norms that we adopt in our childhood. Following them is a sign that we respect the people in our community and that we wish to live in harmony with them. Adjusting to the rules of the culture one live in is as important as knowing why we do those things and eventually choosing the ones one wants to pass to its children.

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