etiquette & cultural contrast

April 23rd, 2007

As a kid, I was used to silent transactions. You would go into a store, pick up some items, proceed to the checkout line, and when it was your turn, the cashier would say "that'll be 2.50" (kids don't have a lot of money). You would hand over the money, and if you wanted to be super polite you would say "here you go" as you did that. Transaction end. Silent or near silent.

Then came those holidays in Poland, which introduced a new set of problems. The elders would instruct you that upon entry you are obliged to say "good morning" (you can't just say "hi", that's rude). This goes not only to the person working there, but also all the other customers (if they are around). Then if you wanted to ask about something, you couldn't just say "do you have?", you'd have to say "dear miss, does the miss have...?" Then as money is changing hands, the "here you go" is not optional. And finally on exit, you're obliged to say goodbye to both the cashier and the other customers. The etiquette varies a bit, it doesn't apply so much in supermarkets (which didn't really exist at the time), but it applies in every small store, barber shop etc.

I always hated these rules, because they seemed so completely pointless. I get irked by anything that is overly complicated for its purpose. And it's not that people in Poland are nicer to each other, they just talk more. If you were mad at someone, you would still have to utter those pleasantries, although you would say them in a completely different tone of voice. So it's just pointless blather that doesn't add anything to the scene. Instead of saying good morning to actually wish someone a good morning, you're obliged to say this robotically to every person you interact with. If you're a really cheery person who wants to wish everyone a good morning, go ahead. But otherwise, why would you have to say that all the time?

I could not bring myself to pronounce those terms myself, out of how plain stupid they sound. I would always try to formulate myself in a way to get around the "dear miss" and "does the miss have". You can say "excuse me, is.... present?" and that way you avoid addressing the person at all, and it's still polite enough.

The language of these phrases is just totally out of context. Popular language in Poland is often very vulgar, more so than say Norwegian. If you're 13-16, you're not cool unless you use fuck in every sentence. In fact, to be on the safe side, use it several times. Fuck, I don't know what the fuck I'm gonna do fuck. (To be technical about it, the word used for fuck actually means whore.) This is the way people actually talk, and it's not just kids either, when grown men are in the company of their peers they do talk like this. And if you want a truly enriching experience, let your parents send you to summer camp; when kids get away from their parents, you'll hear little else that fuck, whore, bitch etc. (It's actually at camp that I felt completely estranged, didn't feel like I fit in at all with these weirdos.) So, when a group of teenagers is walking down the street and one of them stops to buy a magazine in a booth, he will switch from the fuck language to "does the miss have". The contrast is frankly shocking. When people need to be formal they are, otherwise they see no reason why they shouldn't be as vulgar as they possibly can.

To me, these are two worlds I don't fit into. The formal language is contrived and aristocratic like, and no one talks like that outside formal situations. And the popular language in many circles is completely foreign to me as well. Of course, I'm not foreign to curses, we all use them sometimes. But I don't mangle them into my sentences like that. So who's the barbarian here? The person who doesn't utter polite phrases, who only has one mode of expression, or the person who cycles between formality and vulgarity all the time?

Mind you, there are more oddities that come from strict etiquette. For instance, let's say you go into a little shop that only has one person working there, and there are already a few people in there. You enter with a group of 3. Now, what are you supposed to do? Does each of the three people have to say good morning? Is it okay if just the first person says it? If the cashier is currently doing business with a customer, how many times does she have to be interrupted by a good morning when a group enters the store? And whom do you address it to, the cashier, the other customers, everyone? You address the room. You generally look to the cashier, and whoever wants to respond is free to do so. Generally the person working in the store is obliged to respond. Of course, when you enter with your parents, who always go in first (and make the greeting) and you don't say it, they will come down on you. But how stupid is it for 4 or 6 or 9 people to come into a room, each saying good morning? What is this, a conveyor belt?

So maybe you think you're just gonna try and fit in. You observe people, what they do, and try to copy it. This is not easy. People are not consistent. In spite of these strict rules, people are not [complete] robots, they break rules all the time. And it's hard to determine what is definitely rude and what is acceptable.

Then, into my adolescence somewhere, a new trend started taking shape in Norway. People would be saying hi to you in stores for no reason, and sometimes say bye when you left. Continental influence probably. I found this odd at first, I hadn't grown up with it. But it's not a Napoleonic practice that stems from some kind of high aristocracy as in Poland, it's a very common kind of thing. The expressions aren't formal, they are common. It's the same language you use with your friends daily, so you don't have to wear that imaginary wig and pretend to be someone you're not. I got used to the practice and now I don't mind saying hi. When I say it I mean it, I'm not just saying it for show. If I don't want to say it, I won't say it, and no one will give me deathly stares over it. Kindness over politeness. Humans over robots.

Don't get me wrong, the intentions behind politeness are good. People who shaped these rules I think really wanted us to be friendly to each other. And if you take them in that spirit then I think you're doing a good thing. But people are not robots, just because you give them rules to follow does not mean they will a) follow them or b) follow them with the given intention. Politeness in Polish culture is such a strong norm that people follow it out of necessity, not kindness. In fact, think about that principle for a minute. Is there any way to enforce kindness? There isn't. What you can enforce is politeness, a rigid, blind, meaningless code that we feel obliged to adhere to. There is no shortage of good theories that don't work in practice.

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2 Responses to "etiquette & cultural contrast"

  1. erik says:

    That reminds me of an incident I had when I lived in Italy. I entered a small shop, walked towards the back without really having seen anyone (I go straight for the products I need) and the cashier actually left his spot, chased me and tapped me on the shoulder. So I turn around, he's standing there, arms crossed in front of his chest, says "Goodmorning sir"

    Erm, goodmorning

    He didn't proceed to say anything else so I said something like "Do you happen to have *blah*"

    Very strange that one. Perhaps he just thought I looked suspiciously like a shoplifter or something but I think I broke some sort of social protocol...

  2. erik says:

    Oh and you're absolultely spot-on about this one :D