Thursday, August 23, 2007

Daily Etiquette Lesson

There's a handy little buzzphrase going around the world these days. It's called "cultural sensitivity". Let's discuss, shall we?

I understand that what is considered proper, improper, rude, complimentary, etc. varies from culture to culture, and society to society. It would behoove all of us, as a global society, to remember that. I'm not talking about what our world leaders do; I'm just talking about the daily interactions with people who share our daily life. For example, waving to a stranger in Texas is considered polite - for example, the two finger "wave" that you do from your steering wheel to a passing car in a smaller town - that's just a nice thing to do. Try that in New York, and they are liable to kick your ass before putting you in a straight jacket.

Here in Malaysia, we have tried to be polite and acclimate ourselves to the culture here. We point with our thumb, not our finger. I don't run around in my dazzey dukes and my tube top here. Not that I'd do that anywhere (especially when the damn things are always at the dry cleaners), but I do try to dress a bit more modestly here, just because that's how it's done. Cultural sensitivity.

So, quid pro quo, here are a few points I'd like to make about what are considered inappropriate questions to ask Americans (or generally, any Westerners):

1. It is not okay for people to ask how much money we make. This is considered impolite. Ditto for how much large ticket items cost.

I can't tell you how many times we are dropped off by a cab driver who comments, "Oh, nice place. How much does it cost?" Now, I know that the driver, by asking this, is probably just being complimentary, but it's still uncomfortable. We typically respond with "We don't know, our company pays for it." It's much more polite than responding with "Well, that's actually none of your business is it?" Point being, I don't even know how much my sister's monthly mortgage payment is, and we're blood. If she wanted to tell me, fine, but I'm certainly not going to ask. Money issues are definitely a gray area to comment on to Westerners.

2. It's not okay to comment on someone's weight gain. EVER.

I understand that in some cultures, being a bit round is considered a sign of prosperity, or being taken care of well. That's great. I don't think that's the case in Malaysia, though, so I don't get the ease in which people will comment about someone else's weight. It can easily hurt someone's feelings.

I mean, first, there were the pregnancy pooch comments in Florida (from an American no less), then last week a colleague told me that, last time she saw me, I was much slimmer. Then, this week two of M's local colleagues asked him if I was pregnant. He said, "Uh, no. Why?" "Because she looks pudgier lately." M told me this today, and it was the thing, that one thing that sends someone like me, running at a generally high level of stress, that one thing that sends me into a feeling sorry for myself crying jag. In fact, M even told his colleague, "You know, if she knew that you had said that, it would probably make her cry." He was right. So I had my boo hoo fit and now I'm over being sad about it. Now I've moved onto Cultural Sensitivity Training 101, via the blogophere.

This brings me to my last point.

3. Don't ask if someone is pregnant.

This is especially bad, because, what if they aren't? If we are pregnant, and we want you to know, we'll tell you. Otherwise, my uterus is my business.

So, since I no longer wear my assless chaps around town, can you please not comment about how fat I look in them? Deal? Deal.


At August 24, 2007 at 12:18 AM , Anonymous donna said...

Aren't all chaps, by definition, assless? Just saying....

You are so right on all counts. We had a lady at the bank who was getting us our cashier's check for our house as we went to closing ask us how much we were paying for the house. I laughed and muttered something about not being sure what it all came out to, and she wouldn't let it go! She said, "Wow, it must be nice to not know how much you're paying for a house!" Bitch. I almost changed banks. Except that's such a pain.

Oh, and the weight thing, NEVER. It's never a topic of conversation, good or bad. My brother and his wife are constantly talking about how much weight my SIL has lost since having the baby. Um, shut up? Not conversation for public. Some people will never learn though.

At August 24, 2007 at 1:43 PM , Anonymous triad 1 said...

Here's this: next time someone asks a nosy question, such as, "How much did you pay for that nosejob/house/car/birth control device/tattoo?", reply "Why do you ask?" I did that one time to a gal at work who was COMPLETELY nosy about how much things cost, etc...and it stopped her in her tracks:

Her: "How much did Scott pay for your engagement ring?"
Me: "Why do you ask?"
Her: "uh, uh, uh, I was just curious."
Me: "oh, ok." Smile. Walk off.

She hasn't asked since. About anything.

This is the same gal who used to comment on my weight - as in "gee, that shirt really looks good on you, with your figure and all" so then I started saying "gee, you're pretty smart for someone who looks like an asshat," and she stopped.

And our mortgage? You know I'd tell you anything, Love Muffin. $10,000/ mo, baby. Suburbia is expensive. ;)

And you left your assless chaps at my house. Leslie is borrowing them.

At August 24, 2007 at 10:29 PM , Blogger Sarah said...

Donna - You are so right about the assless chaps. Sort of redundant there, huh? I obviously haven't been paying enough attention to Christina Aguilera videos. :)

Triad 1 - Have I told you that you are just fantabulous lately? Tell Leslie to be careful...the leather chafes.

At August 25, 2007 at 9:21 PM , Anonymous reese said...

oh see, now I'm feeling bad for asking you how much your apartment rent is ;) LOL.

no one has asked us what we make yet; I hope it doesn't happen. It seems the natives here are pretty cranky about some of the expat packages that go around, but if you ask me, the whole thing (needing to have expats come in, etc) is a by-product of their own creation (face issues, other stuff worthy of a conversation over coffee).

At August 25, 2007 at 10:30 PM , Blogger Sarah said...

Reese - Don't even worry about it! I promise, if I had been uncomfortable at all, I would have pulled the "Oh, I don't know, our company pays it" bit! :)

Truth be told, the condo thing really only makes me truly uncomfortable when locals ask. It's the expat guilt (or is the Catholic guilt passed on by my mother? Who knows. I can feel guilty about anything at the drop of a hat.) alive and kicking...

At August 26, 2007 at 1:41 PM , Anonymous reese said...

LOL catholic guilt. I'm with ya there. I had a whole day of it today ;)

I would feel uncomfy if some people here knew how much we made in Malaysia dollars...guilt, etc. Or that maybe their expectations and other things would change.


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