Cultural differences

Good or Bad

9:54 AM

There are two blog post I red on two separate blog recently that both reflect on behaviour and how it is perceived in the West and in India.
The first one is on the Diary of a White Indian Housewife, where she reflects upon an article wondering if India brings out the worst in us behaviour wise. The other is on White Bhabi’s blog where she is starting to notice her non confrontational nature might lead her to just being pushed around by her in-law’s family.
While rude behaviour is rude by any name, it is interesting to see that one culture can consider something bad, when it is actually good in another culture. Since I’m Swiss I’ll be speaking about what is considered a proper behaviour back home first.
Swiss are pretty non-confrontational in nature, assertiveness is considered as a flaw, and putting yourself in the spotlight is considered selfish, those who do are looked upon, probably a reason why we don’t really have football superstars, no political figures that made a big impact on the international scene either, the concept of class topper as I’ve seen it in India is non-existent in Switzerland, not that top students don’t get awards, it’s just not spread all over newspapers, and used by schools to brag about how they got a “genius” studying within their walls.
In Switzerland you don’t push in a crowd, you don’t make a scene, you avoid anything that will make you the hot spot and in the crosshair of disapproving eyes such as bringing a toddler to dinner in a restaurant (big big no no in Switzerland), if you’ve been faulted and cheated in anyway you don’t go storming the shop who sold you a crappy item and make a scene, you just try to point out the defect, negotiate a peaceful settlement and if all fail, you go sitting in front of your computer, write a legal letter in proper form, send it as registered post, keep copies in case your complaint get ignored, and hope for a favourable settlement, in fact schools all teach you how to write these type of letter, as there is no way you’ll ever get anywhere without learning the proper structure and form for these. Swiss LOVE their procedures and forms and planned affairs, they are quite uncomfy with spontaneous events in general, and oh boy they love love love punctuality, if you have an appointment with a Swiss citizen, be bang on time, at the most 10 minutes grace period but never without a good apology for being that late, disrespect an appointment time and you devalued yourself in front of your host, and in the case of a job interview, you’ll have a very though time selling your skills as impeccable as they might be if you didn’t bother showing up on time.
Respect thy neighbour is another notion Swiss live by, you don’t show up unannounced, if you are coming unexpected you need a good reason, and apologise for it, and as common courtesy you don’t disturb anybody by phone or in person around meal time. You don’t press your face through the hedge to spy on your neighbour’s garden, or at least not in an obvious way, and you don’t under any circumstances give unsolicited advice…EVER that will make you a bad neighbour, you wait for someone to ask you a question about how to tend your potted geranium to share your tips. Finances are private too, asking how much someone earns or how much their car did cost is rude, don’t do it.

Now for those who are familiar with India, you probably know that the above behaviour will not get you very far, you are more likely to be turned into a doormat. Indians are more assertive, if not aggressive in their way of dealing with day to day woes, while Switzerland believes in equality and tries to harmonise people, hierarchy is pretty much prevalent in India, it leads to competition, because for most life is a struggle, granted that the said competition is reaching dangerous proportions in certain area, it is still there, and non-confrontation will not get you anywhere. That means you often need to yell and push to get things done. As a Swiss myself I had a though time figuring that out, and am not too proud to say that I had to yell and become very un-lady like to get certain things done, such as being given a spare gas cylinder I’ve been entitled to from the time of subscription but never got when asking for it the polite way. A few f word bombs a lot of screaming and banging the desk suddenly had them admit that yes we did pay for 2 cylinders and that we never got the spare, problem solved in one very aggressive discussion and hour after almost a year of polite requests that went nowhere.
I spent 8 years in India and yes by my compatriots standard back home I’m looked upon, I’m considered harsh, rude and cold hearted, probably a reason why I really don’t think I could ever live back home again.
My mom pointed out she could never live in India, it’s a too harsh, fast paced, aggressive mean country for her, she admitted growing a thick skin is not something she can do, I pointed out to her that when it becomes a necessity to just get by you do it.
The other thing that bothers her is the hierarchical pattern going through the entire society, and well I’m with her there, there is something about the hierarchy here that irks me, it actually gives an excuse to some to just act mean and crass just because they perceive themselves as above somebody else, and yes I do struggle a lot with the whole touch your elder’s feet things going in my in-law’s family, not that I mind doing it as such, what bothers me is that it is a sign of respect granted to elders who in return my end up treating you like crap just because they can…My MIL being notorious for just demanding respect but waiting for the first opportunity to corner me, belittle me and insult my culture to my face with nobody being able to stop the nasty bitching fest, believe me DH tried, FIL tried, but all it did was making her meaner and more vicious the second she was alone in a room, 5 years into this marriage and family we know she won’t change, and that in this situation assertiveness won’t work, she placed herself to high up to tolerate it, and for once my Swiss compliant diplomatic behaviour is paying off, but had to go through the alteration process of being coupled with passive aggressiveness which is a notion I didn’t even know before moving to India. the delicate art of bowing out but in a way that will irritate the other but in a such subtle way that they can’t call you on it directly, this doesn’t solve tensions, but it helps you keep your sanity.

All this to say that one culture’s bad, is another culture’s norm or necessity, and that it is exactly why diplomacy was invented in the first place. When being in an intercultural relationship, you need that skill. And I don’t think I’ve become a better or worst person since moving to India, I’ve just learnt to adapt, but it hasn’t been done in one day, and it’s a work constantly in progress.


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