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Happy Sad Land
No Worries
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The Craic
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Robbie Williams
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Tribe
The Meaning of Tingo and Toujours Tingo
Going Dutch in Beijing


Going Dutch in Beijing - buy this title from Amazon.co.uk

 


  Going Dutch in Beijing
  - buy this title from Amazon.co.uk
   

Etiquette is a bit of a dirty word these days. It carries with it associations of prissy types who worry endlessly about which knife to use and whether you’re allowed to dip your biscuit in your tea. In more formal times the demands of etiquette were ghastly and restricting. Brown shoes should never be worn with a dark suit, peas should only be picked up with a fork, if you met a Duchess you had to wait to be introduced to her, etcetera etcetera. In the modern world, where pretty much anything goes, why worry? As long as you’re reasonably civilised to your fellow human that’s all that matters.

This is all very well in a local context. But once you step outside your own culture, how you behave does start to matter. Stick your thumb up to a fellow motorist in a traffic jam in Sardinia and you may be in for a reaction you didn’t expect. In that country the gesture means, literally, ‘Sit on this!’. As it does in downtown Tehran, where it’s called the bilakh and is as rude as ‘the finger’ in other societies.

 
 
Even the most powerful man in the world has to fit in with local customs

Disastrous intercultural misunderstandings are not restricted to gestures. The American businessman who arrives at a meeting in Saudi Arabia wearing a tie covered in jokey pink pigs may well find that he’s lost his contract – the pig is unclean in Muslim countries, and wearing such a tie would be seen as an insult. To take another example. In China, the Arab world and Italy, queuing is not a priority. But in the Russia, Sweden or the UK, not queuing is close to immorality – and that Chinese gentleman who tries to jump to the front is risking serious censure.

This book started out as a relatively light-hearted investigation into similar intriguing cultural differences. But as I continued with my research I got more and more fascinated. Not just with the different behaviours themselves, but the light they throw on our own ways of doing things. Here at home, for example, people would regard having a handkerchief in your pocket as an indisputably polite thing to do. But in Japan they regard carrying a cloth containing what they call hanakuso (‘nose shit’) around in your pocket as disgusting. The polite thing there is either a) use a tissue which you immediately dispose of, or b) to snort your snot back inside your body.

The deeper I went the more intriguing it all became. It’s not just states and societies that vary around the world, but the way individuals react to them. In Germany, for example, the State is highly respected by the populace. There are strict rules about what you can and cannot do, from jaywalking to using garden machinery on a Sunday, and by and large people adhere to them. In Brazil, by contrast, getting round the requirements of the State seems to be people’s primary motivation. They even have a word for it – jeitinho, ‘the little way round or through’.

Living in a country surrounded by people who by and large behave in the same way one is inclined to think of what we do as ‘normal’. But a glance at the wider world shows this not to be the case. Take gay rights for example. Here, it’s now a given that gay men and women should be allowed to lead their lives free from prejudice and restriction. The only remaining areas of contention might be over civil partnerships and whether or not gay couples should be allowed to adopt children. But looked at in a world context, this is a radically liberal position. In the majority of countries in the world homosexuality is illegal. There are many states where arrest and imprisonment for this ‘crime’ is routine; and in Saudi Arabia, Iran and various other places where sharia law prevails homosexual acts attract the death penalty.

  Chapter 10 - Power breakfast
   
  Chapter 9 - Queing nationalities
 

I started out with the idea of a light-hearted miscellany; and that’s, by and large, what I’ve ended up with. Both the wide range of material I wanted to cover and the format doesn’t lend itself to anything deeper. But I hope the book is informed with my serious fascination for the extraordinarily different ways we human beings behave.

In my own travels I’ve on occasion experienced the humiliation of the unintended faux pas. Messing up ‘the African handshake’ in Cape Town. Thinking I’d offended an Aboriginal farm manager who wouldn’t meet my eye in Australia. Assuming - crassly - there would be alcohol at lunch with the teetotal King of the Zulus. All these misunderstandings were in theory absurdly trivial. But in practice caused me embarrassment I still wince about.

Will Going Dutch help you to avoid similar heffalump traps? I seriously doubt it. But you might have fun reading about what they could be. And just think, if only somebody had told me that people never walk on the beach in Rio when it rains I’d never have got mugged …

For any feedback you may have on either the book or interesting manners and customs around the world please link to the Going Dutch In Beijing blog at:

goingdutchinbeijing.blogspot.com

 
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