Don’t Free Willy

(On Manners, Cultural Sensitivity and Rules)

By Kimberly Kosta

We all make mistakes. Even after diligently looking up norms and conventions of a destination we are all probably guilty of screwing up and being rude some how. There can be so many rules, after all. (Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in your rice in Japan, don’t show the sole of your shoe in Middle Eastern countries, DO touch your arm as you hand money to someone in South Korea) …You have to be mindful of the laws of the land, the rules of basic etiquette, and try not to tread all over someone’s culture while you’re at it. Usually (in my experience) the locals are pretty forgiving of minor transgressions, which is a good thing because we are human and therefore prone to error. They understand that it is unintentional.

Then there are times when people are not just crossing a line, but long jumping over it in full body glitter, holding sparklers and using an air horn. While in the Philippines (I believe this story occurred in Boracay), my friend returned to our hotel and told me she’d seen two people completely naked hanging out at the beach. Was it a nude beach, you ask? Ah-nope.

As the Philippines is 83% Catholic, I would expect people to show more cultural sensitivity and modesty. And, really, if it’s not your home country where such a thing might be normal (send details) and if it isn’t a designated place to get nekkid, why would you run around like that, all free-willy-nilly? I bet if we’d all had judge’s score cards to hold up that noise would have been shut down REAL QUICK. Luckily, they weren’t MY travel companions, though I’ve certainly had my share of friends whose behavior was stress-inducing.

I once travelled four hours from Jeonju to Seoul on a bus in Korea with a guy who was SO FREAKING LOUD that he could sell it to the back row of the Apollo at a whisper. I mean his normal volume was much higher than most people’s to begin with but of course, being on a cell where the person on the other end was shouting made him dial it up even more. THANK GAWD I wasn’t actually sitting right next to him but I mean… I thought I was going to implode in on myself from embarrassment. Busses in Korea are like libraries. You shouldn’t eat smelly, noisy foods, and you should keep conversations to a dull roar.

During this particular trip I could see the Koreans getting agitated and frustrated and giving us looks. To ME this was all super obvious. Guy-in-Question was two rows back, BLAH BLAH BLAH-ing on the phone, while I was quietly sitting next to a different friend, BURNING with shame because some of those looks were thrown my way. Shut up shut up shut up I telepathically implored, rubbing my temples, while vowing never to set foot on a bus with him again. For me, the guilt-by association was a form of torture. And not that I’m perfect, but I know, for example, not to get freaky in the mud pit at the Boryeong’s Mudfest, which is generally a family event. (Yeah, I’ve heard rumors of that actually happening. Ugh. Like I said, people: Body glitter and sparklers).

(Update: As I opened my computer today to edit this post, I saw an article about two American men who dropped trou in a Thai temple and are now facing charges).

Now this is a fairly straight-forward, easy example of a “don’t”, but sometimes the rules are more subtle and aren’t always immediately available with signs and pamphlets, in which case being aware of people around you and monitoring their behavior can tell you a lot about expectations. And if someone politely TELLS you you’re breaking with social convention, just humbly admit the faux pas and for god’s sake QUIT IT.

Definitely research the countries and cultures you intend to visit. You don’t need to know EVERYTHING, but get familiar with manners for greetings and goodbyes, appropriate dress, table manners and which gestures are okay. In the USA the ‘thumbs up’ gesture shows an affirmative or approval, and good happy fuzzy feelings, but in other countries (like Italy or Greece) it communicates where you can shove any good, happy, fuzzy feelings if you use it.

And for the love of all things holy shmoley guacamole, pleaaaaaase save Mr. Bojangles and Mrs. Vagoofor designated exhibitory places. Or risk seeing people scoring your physique using a specific finger.

I’ll let you guess which one.