[email protected]

June 04, 2008, Wednesday

Who says it’s uncouth?

During a recent national holiday in China, many local tourists visiting the Chinese capital Beijing were instructed on "proper etiquette." Most non-Beijing Chinese resented being told their normal behavior was uncouth.
After all, this is how they were raised, so why is it wrong now? Haven't you heard the Olympics will begin soon? Well, Chinese officials want to impress their international guests. If you have ever worked or studied in an international setting you may have noticed that there are conflicting opinions on what is proper and what is uncouth. It all depends on where you come from. In fact, this can vary within a culture to some degree depending on socio-economic background.

The Chinese were raised to believe that there is nothing wrong with littering or spitting on the street. After all, public spittoons are provided in public places. However, it seems now that China is hosting the Olympics, this behavior has become unacceptable.

Well, it is downright uncouth! Says who? Posters posted in almost every train station, bus stop, hotel and scenic spot instruct local tourists how to behave. This has of course left Chinese adults feeling like little children, reprimanded for bad behavior. Hygiene and etiquette lessons should begin being taught in the home as a child and not by banners, billboards and leaflets hanging throughout the city.

If you can read Turkish you might have noticed the occasional banners hanging across the main streets of neighborhoods instructing locals how to throw away their garbage. Or maybe you have noticed a billboard in the public toilets illustrating how to use the toilet, how to keep it clean and how to wash your hands. Individuals who do not speak Turkish might assume the pictograms are not for them but instead target the lower educated classes since they are in picture form with very little written instruction.

In some parts of the world, jumping the line, spitting, littering and clearing one's throat loudly in public are normal behavior and not something that is rude. But these same behaviors are considered unacceptable and rude in other parts of the world. Let's consider some rude behavior in the West.

Have you ever noticed how non-English speakers memorize the words of English songs and play popular songs with English lyrics with no clue about what is being sung? I've known some Westerners who have been in shops in Turkey and commented on the music to the shop attendant, informing the person that it is not appropriate music for the setting.

In the West, although some may think swearing is cool, profanity on the job is considered unacceptable. In Hugo Fink's barbershop in Huntingburg, Indiana, he has a sign that reads "Profanity is the effort of a feeble mind to express itself forcibly."

Cynthia Lett, the president of the consulting firm Creative Planning International, explains the impact of profanity on other staff in her article "The F Word Means You're Fired!"

Lett points out in order of importance in her article the top 10 UK office etiquette offenses deemed unacceptable by senior managers:

1. Bad hygiene -- smelly breath and dirty clothes, etc.

2. Bad language

3. Bad habits -- flossing teeth with paperclip, picking nose, etc.

4. Wastefulness

5. Not offering to share chores

6. Eating smelly food in the office

7. Eating someone else's food out of the fridge/from their desk

8. Messy desk/office area, littering, etc.

9. Loud talking

10. Blackberries in meetings

Etiquette, in public or at work, is much more than knowing which fork to use or how to greet clients. If you want to avoid offending your local host and any embarrassment, you really should consider learning the skills needed to present yourself as a professional and be taken seriously.

China, like other non-Western nations, is trying to do this -- helping its citizens gain the knowledge and experience needed to give them the confidence to perform as international hosts. After all, as Huang Xiaohui, a tour guide with a Beijing-based travel agency, said, "The Olympics are coming, and we don't want to get disgraced."

 As an anthropologist, sometimes I have to stop and ask myself, "What is correct behavior?"

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit." -- Aristotle

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey, 2005.” Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]
Previous articles of the columnist