Navigating Culture – Are They Rude Or Am I a Wimp?
My mother would tell me to remember my manners and to be polite before venturing off to a friend’s home. She did not want my animal side to come out and embarrass her, she did not want me to seem uncultured. Throughout all my travels I have taken this advice with me, the best lesson for world travel is to practice a set of basic manners — this will get you anywhere.
But what happens when you meet people whose take on manners are different? What happens when the parameters of proper social interaction of your culture collide with another?
Simple, you watch how the offending group interacts with each other and you do the same. It works.
I remember reading a story about how the old time USA astronauts initially had a difficult time living with their Cosmonaut colleagues. The bi-national crew on the spaceships would eat their meals in common, the Russians would gobble it all up and take as much as they could for themselves while the Americans were left with the scraps.
In USA culture it is polite to make sure everyone sitting around a dinner table has enough to eat, we feel that it is rude to take the last of any dish in a common meal without asking first.
The USA astronauts thought that they were being polite by sitting back and letting the Russians eat all of the food. The Russians thought that they were just not hungry.
Why else would anyone just let other people eat all of their food?
Eventually, the hungry Americans broke down one night and flared at the Russians who were quickly wolfing down everything they could grab off the dinner table.
“We were wondering why you were not jumping in,” the Cosmonauts reputedly stated.
Apparently, in Russia, it is a very odd act indeed to let others gobble up all the food at a dinner table; in Russia, it is standard operating procedure to eat all the food that you want without regard for anyone else eating with you. If others don’t “jump in” it is they who have the problem — they go hungry — not you.
Knowing this — knowing that they would not be considered rude for just grabbing all the food they wanted — the Americans jumped in. The zero gravity dinner table found its equilibrium.
And that is all that social culture is, an equilibrium: one action will be automatically met by another, each symbol finds understanding and meaning. Within the sphere of a particular group with a common symbology, most actions are understood: in Russia, you grab all the food from the dinner table you can grab, in the USA, it is polite to defer to others.
The problem comes when people from other cultures meet, when people from other cultures mistake the symbology of another a being rude.
Often in travel I see Israelis misinterpreted. Many travelers from other countries call them rude, loud, cheap — the locals often hold the same sentiments. There are many hotels in the world whose doors are closed to Israelis, I have actually heard of entire towns in Southeast Asia who have banned them from staying. It is my impression that many people seem to be a little put off by Israeli travelers: they tend to be loud, they travel in gangs, they don’t pussyfoot around their points, they tend not to dance the jig of politeness, never afraid to ask for a discount, and they seem exclusive — often ignoring other non-Israelis as if they do not even exist.
I once misinterpreted Israelis myself. I allowed myself to think that that, as a group, were rude. I thought that they took no one else into account except for themselves, that they disrespected me just because I was not an Israeli, I had no idea how they could even interact with and tolerate each other.
Then I watched how they interacted. They got along well, nobody seemed to think that anyone else was rude or was stepping on anyone else’s toes, they had a system for social interaction that worked for them.
Like the US astronauts, I realized that it was I who had the problem, not them.
“You have to understand, they are Arabs,” my friend Andy told me some years ago as we sat in an Israeli hotel in Antigua.
I took this statement to heart, I watched Israelis from a new perspective: maybe they are not rude, maybe they just have a different way? I watched, I listened, I learned. Israelis seem to follow slightly different cues that guide their social interaction, I realized that needed to learn a little it if I want to get along — that I could not just speak to them as I would someone from my own country.
I needed to “jump in.”
I quickly packed away the passive manners my mother taught me, and made my intentions known. directly, clearly, making no mistake to let them know what I wanted. If they
If an Israeli gets in your way it is my impression that it is expected that you will directly request that they move: that seems to be their way. If you are walking towards the bathroom and someone runs in front of you, you walk faster to win the race.
My glimpses of Israel have only been slight, but their culture seems to have a push or be pushed element to it: if you push you will be fine, if you get knocked out of the way then you are a schmuck for choosing to be a weakling. Some cultures step aside and pretend that the weak are as strong as everyone else, while others storm ahead with an honest view of their society: the person who gets on the bus first is the one who wants to the most. If you allow yourself to be shoved to the back of the line then you made a choice to be there. Loser.
I remember reading an ethnography by an anthropologist doing field work somewhere in Africa — the specifics of the tale are not important. He thought that the culture that he was study were rude people, he reported they would walk up to him when he was sleeping in a hammock and just flip him over, stealing his bedding from right under him. Other aspects of social interaction worked the same. The anthropologist could not believe how rude those people were. Then one day he had enough, he was flipped out of his hammock and he reacted: he knocked the thief out and reclaimed his resting place.
The other guy just walked away as if nothing had happened. The anthropologist then realized that it was he that had the problem , that the people he was living amongst were not rude, that he was just showing himself to be a Nancy, that he was weak and could be walked over. Apparently, it was just normal for those people to take things from people who were not strong enough to protect their keep, there was nothing rude about it, it was just standard behavior. From that day on, the anthropologist asserted himself socially, physically, and matched his actions to run a little more flush with the culture around him.
We were wondering why you were not jumping in.
Interacting with Israelis is simple: you say what you think. If you want something, you tell them, if they are doing something that bothers you, you tell them. It is simple. Verbal expression is key, Israeli culture seems to follow vastly more explicit rather than implicit social cues. If you let Israelis run you over, you will be steam rolled; if you speak your feelings, your problems will more than likely disappear.
I remember one year, a long time ago in Panama City, I was staying in a hostel with many Israeli clientele. I was waiting to use the public computer. There was a little sign above the monitor that said that if people are waiting for the computer to please limit your time to 15 minutes. I waited for an hour right next to the computer for the Israeli girl to finish. I thought that my location in proximity to the computer — waiting in line — would indicate that I wanted to use it.
It didn’t. One Israeli jumped on the computer after another. I was steam rolled, I proved myself to be a wimp.
My culture teaches me that the person on the computer should look around when they are using it at show regard for people waiting. My culture is a passive culture that relies in implicit cues — we expect everyone else to mind our keep, we demand that other people should watch out for us and take us into account. My culture is one that tip toes around wimps. I do not come from a grab all you can get, fend for yourself, type of culture. So when I just expected the Israelis to understand my implicit cues — I was sitting and waiting in line for the computer — I was acting in accordance to my own culture. I did not speak up, I did not make my intentions explicit, rather I acted like a passive American ever ready to be steam rolled by my askance sense of manners. I just expected other people to understand my social cues.
I got mad and declared the Israelis rude and stormed off.
I did not yet know that the problem was with me, that I did not understand the proper cultural cues of my surroundings, that I expected other people to understand and abide by my own cultural symbology. And I paid the price: I was steam rolled, like the American astronauts eating dinner with the Russians.
If that happened today — if I was in a similar situation where I was waiting for an Israeli to finish using the public computer — I would tell them straight away that I wanted to use it and make sure that they were off in 15 minutes. I would then jump into the seat, even if someone else was already moving towards it. I would have verbally made my intentions known and I would have acted on them.
This is one of the aspects that I enjoy most about interacting with Israelis: they can handle verbal expression, they seem to be a vocal culture. You can speak directly to them, tell them to step aside, remind them that they are in your way, ask them for what you want, invite yourself into their conversations, and they usually respond with kindness.
It is my impression that the way that I speak with Israelis could be interpreted as rude to an American or European — I know that I must adjust my manners to fit who I am interacting with. I know that if I walk up to an Israeli and speak passively, with my face in my shirt, they would steam roll me — and they would have every right to.
As I write this I am listening to two Israelis s having a conversation on the other side of the finca. It sounds as if they are yelling at each other, but they are simply talking. They are approximately 100 meters away through the forest — there is no way that I should be able to hear them speaking, I would not be able to hear anyone else at this distance unless they were yelling at each other. If I could speak Hebrew I could record what they were saying, I hear them clearly. They are just a loud culture, when I talk to them I speak loudly as well.
“Perhaps they yell when they speak because that is the only way they can hear each other over everyone else yelling,” I joke with my wife.
“Studies show that Jews reply quickest in conversation after someone makes a statement, if you are not interrupting someone it is a sign that you are not listening.”
It is my impression that, taken as a whole, Israelis are not inherently rude people. Perhaps it is the lack of perception of other people to adjust and realize that the cultural interplay, the rules of social engagement, of their own culture and that of Israel sometimes do not meet end to end, that certain adjustments are needed. Culture is just a collection of patterns and symbols that guide action and thought — a maze that really can be walk, though I don’t know about being understood.
Like the Cosmonauts, Israelis often tend to take the first steps. It is my impression that they come from a wreaking ball culture, they do not seem to sit back and observe how other people are acting around them. No, they tend to be Israeli through and through, without dilution, fully completely themselves. Their culture seems to work well within its own sphere
If it can be said that Australians always pack Vegemite, and Argentineans Matte, then it can be said that Israelis bring Israel with them when traveling. They tend to always look for each other, travel in large groups, and tend to go to the places where they know other Israelis will be waiting.
“There are so many Israelis in San Pedro,” an Israeli spoke to me in the east of Guatemala, “it is just like being home. They even have falafel there.”
Where someone from another country may speak these words with scorn, the Israeli stated them with a smile. Israelis tend to take a more old world approach to traveling: they are themselves, purely, clearly, I have never observed them bending to meet the cultural standards of anybody else.
When among a group of Israelis anywhere in the world, you may as well be in Israel — and adapt accordingly.
If I were Israeli, then maybe the angle of this article would be different — perhaps I would write about how they can adapt their behavior to better get along with other travelers, how to observe the cultural cues of more passive societies. But I am an American — this is my angle through and through — and so I write about how I, as an American, can better travel the world. My scope is limited by my culture, perception, social symbology, as it is for everyone. I cannot write for people from another place, I can only write for myself.
When traveling, when interacting with other cultures, it is my impression that you cannot expect that other people will inherently understand your cultural cues, you cannot rely on your storage of social symbolism to make sense of the world around you. Many times when you find another culture crass, rude it is because you don’t understand the premises that they work from. It takes work, time, observation to figure out where the fine line is between what is truly rude and what is just misinterpretation when two cultures interact. Sometimes in travel, people will treat you rudely; sometimes in travel, you will only think that you have been treated as such.
This is not to say that it is best to travel the world as a wishy washy Nancy, making amends and justification for each person that spits in your face, but it is to say that explicit communication and/ or observation is needed to get along with some other cultures — sometimes your own ways need to be evaluated, sometimes you need to forget the manners that your mother taught you and act in accordance with the circumstances that you find yourself in.
Acting different roles, playing different parts, adjusting your own way of socializing to match the ever changing cultural environs that surround you is part of the great affair of traveling the world. Knowing that the world is OK, that you can often restrategize your behavior to run flush with ever changing surroundings is powerful knowledge to have.
I fail to believe that anybody can truly understand another culture, they can only figure out ways to deal with another culture. I don’t understand Cosmonauts, I don’t understand Africans flipping people out of their hammocks, and I definitely do not understand Israelis. But I don’t aim to. My goal is to get along, I want to learn what I can from all people, so I develop strategies to navigate the ever shifting cultural highways of my surroundings.
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