Why this may help you understand the other party better and prevent misunderstandings
In today’s Singapore, we have become more multi-ethnic than ever. Thanks to globalization, we are likely to interact with many other races at home or abroad. Each race has its own inherent culture so sometimes we may misunderstand each other as our perspectives, manner of doing things, and even expressing ourselves are quite different.
Let’s talk about footwear. My experience is that overseas western friends tend to walk right into the house with their footwear as they do in their own homes where the ground may be cold. In tropical countries, we are used to going barefooted. But these days, I urged my western friends to change into slippers if they are not comfortable with bare feet.
If you visit a traditional Japanese home, the tradition is to remove your shoes and align them facing the main door and then change into their guest slippers. If you use their washroom, there is another pair of slippers which you should change into and must never wear out of the washroom.
I was always forgetful about this protocol. Once, in a Japanese friend’s house, I left my guest slippers under the table after the host invited me to go upstairs to look at their western and Japanese style bedrooms. The hostess panicked and ran after me with my guest slippers. Later, I went to use their washroom and came out with their red toilet slippers. The hostess again brought attention to me that I should wear guest slippers in the living room.
Incidentally, the Japanese are masters of detail. Gifts are exquisitely packaged and presented at the porch before crossing the threshold to enter the house. While a western counterpart would tell you that he believes he has the right present for you which you would like very much, when giving a Japanese gift, I was taught to be humble.
For example, when giving edible stuff, you may say, “ Okuchi ni awanai kamoshiremasen ga, dozo omeshiagari kudasai”. This translates into “ This may not suit your taste but please partake of it”, the Japanese term used being honorific to show respect to the receiver or your host. Or “Tsumaranai mono desu ga,…” means “it is just a boring gift but…”(please accept it).
Westerners are explicit in saying “no” which means no. It takes skill to understand the Japanese. “No” can come in the form of words like “muzukashii na….” meaning “it would be difficult”. They seldom reject a request outright, and you have to be aware of the nuances, their facial expressions, and body language. This often happens when someone asks for a favor or deal from a Japanese. A common expression would be, “…chotto…” meaning a little…(difficult is the word that follows). If a Japanese tilts his head and goes sucking air through his teeth, that is an explicit no from him!
If you are invited to a westerner’s home who presents the table with a fine dining theme, do know where and which to pick your fork and spoon first. As I was not exposed to table etiquette when I was younger, I used to mix up the forks, knives, and spoons and took them from the wrong side!
If one is not familiar with chopsticks, it is better, to be honest, and ask for a pair of fork and spoon than to blunder with the former. Never stick the chopsticks into a bowl of rice or food as it is taboo in Chinese culture. It reminds them of incense used in funerals to honor the dead.
From my Japanese friend, it is important to slurp the soup or the noodles to show the pleasure of eating them. However, in other cultures, this noise is considered rude behavior.
Despite what has been said, I would give accolades to the Japanese for their management of time. Trains arrive on time to the second so it is a pleasure when planning a journey. In public transport, commuters are to refrain from using mobile devices so as not to disturb fellow commuters but they are allowed to eat and drink.
In Singapore, you may use your mobile in the trains and on the bus but if you eat or drink, there is a fine of up to $500.
In some countries, time becomes elastic like rubber bands. In Malaysia, for example, food may take its time to come and I am aware that it is a relative feel of the time-lapse due to different work cultures.
In Indonesia, it becomes super-elastic. Once, I ordered a local dish at the restaurant of a hotel in Indonesia. After waiting 45 minutes for the fried rice that did not arrive, I was inclined to walk into the kitchen and take over from the cook but restrained myself. Eventually, the food did come but we were famished.
The fault was more our own, coming from fast-paced Singapore where time is money and the cost of living is high. Productivity is key, hence the speed. In Malaysia and especially Indonesia, the pace of life is relaxed, so a mindset adjustment on my part would have eased my impatience and anxiety.
In any case, Singaporeans are also infamous for being elastic with their time and this is a well-known fact when it comes to wedding dinners. It is inexplicable but it seems to be a Singaporean trait that wedding dinners start as late as 8.30 pm even when it is stated 7.30 pm on the invitation card. It is not uncommon to see guests streaming in after 8.30 pm as well. Maybe they were expecting others to be late.
A Korean guide once commented that he loves Singaporean tourists because we are very quiet eaters and well-behaved during mealtimes. Meanwhile, the Chinese Nationals at the next table were very upbeat, bawling away happily while eating and drinking, livening up the scene. Westerners would consider that gross misbehavior but actually to them it is a joyous occasion.
However, when it came to shopping, there was no stopping the Singaporean tourists! They came, they bargained and carted away loads of stuff! Singaporeans love shopping especially when the products are much cheaper or not available at our shops back home.
On one trip to China, our local Chinese guide lamented about the general lack of interest of Singaporean tourists in listening to 5000 years of China history which he related with a lot of passion. Singaporeans, she commented were short on attention span. But at the mention of Shopping and food, their eyes would light up! I thought this feedback is important for our own sake to become more intellectual in knowledge and become respectable.
Another thing that confused me was the manner of greeting that different races conduct themselves. It happened when meeting my husband’s friends from the west. Do we kiss one cheek or both? And which side should we start? Do you pretend to go up close and then smack the air with your lips? You have to be really careful as you do not want to be lip-locked! Do not wash off immediately in your guest’s presence. In some cultures, it gets more complicated as there is a third kiss.
Usually, I would just offer a handshake unless the other side initiated this exchange of grime and dirt. Sometimes, you have no choice and am seized into your spouse’s foreign friend’s bosom anyway. In this respect, the Japanese win again in simplicity and hygiene by just a simple bow.
Anyway, the pandemic has straightened out this dilemma. Clasping the hands, or holding the palms as in prayer with or without a bow or knuckle-knocking gestures have become the new normal ways of greetings.
It is important to adapt or at least understand another country’s culture as one does not wish to offend the opposite party. As the world becomes globalized, more interaction is expected between different nationalities, religions, and races.
We should try to understand another culture and act accordingly by accepting other people’s cultural behaviors. This would prevent unnecessary social faux par and embarrassment. In fact, it is an eye-opener that may teach us new, useful habits. Or we learn to become more tolerant of others and make this world a better place through cultural acceptance and integration.