Thursday, February 17, 2011

Belshaw's World - common courtesy a confusion for visitors

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 9 February 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

I have always been interested in cultural differences. I also find it interesting to see how others perceive us. Sometimes we learn things about our own culture that come as a surprise.

Several years ago I collected reactions from Indonesian students to Australia. These came especially from a web site called Different Pond Different Fish ( I thought that I would share some of these with you.

“The thing about Australia that surprised me”, one student wrote, “is the way Australians ask for help. I thought before that Westerners were very informal in their manners and language, as I'd always seen in Hollywood movies. But I was wrong.”

I paused when I first read this, because I thought that Australian speech was relatively informal. Our student went on:

“I didn't realize that although they are very informal in daily speaking they have to use special words when asking for help. For example: ‘Would you please’, ‘Could you please’, ‘Would you mind’, and so on.

The word ‘please’ is a very common word in asking for help, and if we don’t use it, Australians will think that we’re being very rude. And after we receive what we asked for, we must say ‘thank you’ or ‘thanks’.

This is quite different in Indonesia, people do not say ‘thank you’ as often as Australians do. Moreover, Australians speak like this to all people, whether they are children or elderly people, a taxi driver or the prime minister.”

I think that our Indonesian student is right on this one, although I hadn’t thought about it until I read the comment. Australians do place a lot of weight on what we see as common politeness.

Another Indonesian student was surprised to learn that it was taboo to ask questions on first meeting Australian people.

“How can we be acquainted with someone if we don't ask questions?” the student asked. “We Indonesian people usually ask questions to encourage friendship. That is our way to start a conversation. In Australia, however, we can't do that.”

This is another example of Australian formality.

“What Australian people do”, the student explained, is to make a general comment about something. Afterwards, we have to wait for the person's response. If there isn't a response that means there isn't a conversation.

To be honest, it is very funny for me as an Indonesian person!”

Often, little things can provide traps, like who pays for lunch.

An Indonesian student’s supervisor invited his students and research staff to have lunch together at a nearby restaurant. In many countries, such an invitation implies that the supervisor will pay.

The student left her bag and money in the car and then found herself in difficulty when everybody began putting money into the centre to pay.

“Fortunately I was sitting near my Nepali friend who was a new student too. She lent me some cash to pay for lunch. We laughed because she had just enough cash to pay for both of us. She didn't know that we had to pay for ourselves either.”

Reading this, I must say that I thought that the supervisor had been insensitive. I have been caught in this one myself, making wrong assumptions about just who pays.

Another student was struck by the way Australians read on trains and buses, during lunch time, relaxing at home or even at the beach.

“I'm already used to the reading habits of Aussies”, the student wrote. “Back here in Indonesia people use their spare time for gossiping or taking a nap... My workmates tease me when I take my reading wherever I go. They often say, ‘Don't be so diligent to read.’ What a different context I face now!”

Then, in all this, there are simply the normal surprises of a different country.

An Indonesian student in Perth was invited to go to a bush dance. “I assumed that we would be transferred to some kind of forest with tall grass to do bush dancing”, the student explained. “I thought I would need clothing that can protect myself like a pair of boots to protect my feet, a long-sleeve top to protect me from mosquitoes and a hat of course.”

Needless to say, it wasn’t like that!

The student’s final reaction finishes this column: “It’s FUN. Bush dancing is really fun.”


Le Loup said...

Well thank goodness this student met with some polite Australians.This past wednesday I was confronted by some rude staff in Big W! All I did was simply ask if my order had arrived yet, and I was treated like an alien. Very embarrasing. I will be making a formal complaint. This is just not good enough, even if I was an alien!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi LL. Aren't we all aliens? Sorry about Big W.