HOW TO BEHAVE IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY

From: IATEFL NEWSLETTER 13(8), 8/9 97, p. 23

In the margin

Alan McLean

I liked Vicki Hollett's anecdote in her recent Newsletter piece about the Japanese student who burst into tears when told that bowing was culturally inappropriate in American society. 'That's my culture,' she said, 'and if I don't do that I'm not being respectful and I won't be a good person.' The point being that while we need to respect the culture of the country we're in, we shouldn't attempt to ditch our own culture entirely, as if we could. There's a nice bit in one of Robert Byron's travel books where he orders some Afghan bearer out of his tent when he's having a confidential chat with an English friend. 'You know,' says the friend, 'it's the custom in Afghan society to eavesdrop on what someone else is saying.' 'And it's a custom in mine,' retorts Byron, 'to throw people like that out of the room.' Be sensitive to other cultures, but you can't and probably don't want to escape your own. Here's another example. My German is limited to ordering food and drink. I've recently acquired a GCSE in the subject, but that doesn't say a lot. I'm aware that when I'm in a restaurant, for example, I say Bitte and Danke vielmals much more than native speakers would. But I don't want to be the kind of person who doesn't say Please and Thank you to waiters. To me that seems rude, even though it wouldn't to a German speaker. Not entirely logical, I know, but I'm quite happy to stick to what feels right to me and end up being thought a bit foreign, which after all is what I am.

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