Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Mind your manners

Many years ago, I took an intensive language course in preparation for a study abroad program. The course was great, in that it tried to prepare us not only for the linguistic challenges that we would face, but also for the cultural issues that would almost certainly arise. Going into the course, I had fancied myself a sophisticated world traveler, and therefore not in need of a lesson on cultural differences, so I wasn't entirely receptive to this message at first. However, I was struck by a metaphor that the instructor used. She described a situation in which you visit a culture in which the standard polite greeting is to spit in your face upon meeting. Since you KNOW this about the culture before you go there, the first time it happens, you're started, and perhaps a little disgusted, but not annoyed. The second time, you're less startled, still disgusted, and moderately amused. After the 10th time, though, it's just about impossible not to become annoyed. The intellect can only overcome one's own cultural baggage to some extent, and beyond that, it's just about impossible not to have an emotional reaction to behavior that is considered unacceptable in your own culture, even when you KNOW that no offense is intended.

I've found that indeed, in every country where I've spent a sufficient period of time, there is some habit or custom that I find difficult to accept. Well, after 11 months in Korea, I am now fairly certain that I have identified my Korea-specific Achilles heel. You see, I don't like to be pushed.

I don't mean metaphorically pushed. I mean physically pushed, either by a hard jostle with the shoulder, or by actually having someone reach out their hand to push me. Koreans are lovely people when you know them, but apparently it is 100% acceptable to push a stranger who is in your way, even if you can see with your own eyes that that person doesn't actually have a choice about being there. Impatient to get off of a crowded train? No worries, just push the person in front of you until they slam into the person in front of them. It won't get you out any faster, but it'll make you feel better. Are you having trouble negotiating your shopping cart through a crowd? Just slam it up against the legs of the person in front of you. Sure, they're stuck too, so the only result is to make them yelp with pain, but hey, wasn't that more amusing than just standing there waiting? What if the person in your way is elderly, disabled, a small child, or a pregnant woman? No worries. This is a democracy. What if they're not in your way at all? Oh heck, push them anyway.

At first, I interpreted the pushing as subtle expressions of anti-foreign sentiment. I do stick out like a sore thumb here, so I assumed that the pushing was related to my appearance. However, the more I looked around, I realized that everybody pushes everyone else, and nobody seems to get mad, or even to notice.

This is hard for me. Americans are particularly orotective of their personal space (ask any European, Asian, or African), and in that way, I'm typically American. I don't even like being crowded, and having a stranger make avoidable physical contact for no reason feels like an act of aggression. I have been particularly sensitive to this since I've been visibly pregnant. It is just very hard for me to understand how someone could really think it's OK to push a pregnant woman when she's not in the line of gunfire or something. I'm trying to learn to cope with it, but it's hard.

Being hugely pregnant actually raises lots of issues about manners and etiquette, no matter where you are in the world. Should people let you ahead in bathroom lines? Should you be annoyed if they don't? Should people give you a seat on the bus/train? Do they? Does it bother you?

Since I've been showing, I've spent time in three countries: Indonesia, Singapore, and Korea. Here is the score:

Long bathroom lines encountered:

Indonesia: ~100
Singapore: ~10
Korea: ~100

Times someone has offered to let me go ahead:

Indonesia: 0
Singapore: 0
Korea: 0

Rides on trains/subways when empty seats were not available:

Indonesia: ~10
Singapore: ~10
Korea: ~10

Times someone offered me their seat:

Indonesia: 1 (an old man who was then immediately given a seat by a young healthy man, who had been ignoring me)
Singapore: 0
Korea: 4 (but that number includes 2 Americans)

Unimpressive, all around.

In Korea there are specially designated seats on the subway for people who are "elderly, disabled, or pregnant" (that's what the sign says), and generally, people that don't "qualify" don't sit there, even if there are many empty "special" seats, no needy people, and the rest of the train is full. However, people from the "normal" seats pretty much never give up their seats. So, it's all about rules, not about the "honor system". I suppose that's fair enough. However, the "honor system" IS used by people deciding whether they qualify for the "special" seats. When do you become elderly? Well, according to my own observations, some people seem to become elderly at age 50. Then, once sitting, people in the "special" seats don't seem to give them up, even to someone who fairly clearly needs them more. I have actually only seen a sitting passenger get up from a "special" seat once, and that was when I got up from a "special" seat, because there was a very old woman with a cane standing. Apparently this shamed the healthy 50-year-old man next to me to the point at which he then offered me his seat. Does that count? I don't know.

What's it like where you live? Do people give up their seats for pregnant women? Do you?


Sarah said...

that sounds about the same as M-B's comments about the nyc subway. someone gave me this funny book called "Milk It" which describes just how to get a seat ont he subway (stand with feet wide apart, belly shoved all the way out, and hands on hips. heave a bit and appear to be slightly faint and/or nauseous). they say no real pregnant woman ever stands this way, but that enough people recognize this pose from cheesey TV programs as a woman on the verge of going into labor, and since people will go to great lengths to avoid having to assist in THAT, it may be just enough to push them over the edge and will them to give up their seats.

i have yet to give it a try myself.

Carey said...

For me, being raised in the South... it would be considered very rude to not give up my seat to anyone who seemed to need it more. Of course, I am also one of those people who also hold doors open for others and actually say hello to strangers (or at least smile). Men sometimes get confused when I hold the door open for them!! LOL I don't discriminate in my politeness. But it is funny to watch them realize that somewhere inside of them (I think they hear their mother's voice), that THEY should have been the one to hold the door open - and then they tend to make a big deal out of it. "No, no, let me get that for YOU..."

The pushing thing would drive me crazy!! I am also like you in that I like my personal space.

Marie-Baguette said...

Things were pretty bad for me in NYC. I think part of it was that some people were not sure if I were pregnant or just had a really thick "muffin top". But most of it was because guys just avoid looking at me, thinking that would make it OK for them not to give up their seat. The worse I have seen was a young guy who was reading. Did not see me but the woman sitting next to him did and offered me her seat. The guy said he was sorry he had not seen me or he would have given up his seat. Except that he remained seated while the woman was standing. Poor manners about here. I got very frustrated and angry about it but in the end, I just asked and it was great, because people could not ignore me anymore and usually it would be the guy who had obviously been avoiding looking at me that would get up. Just speak up, woman! By the way, how is your Korean now? Still going to class?

Lut C. said...

Mostly, there have been plenty of seats. When there haven't been, no one has offered me one yet. Which strengthens my idea that I look fatter, not pregnant.
On the other hand, the train conductor didn't want to see my doctor's slip about my pregnant state while sitting in first class with a second class ticket - a perk granted to all pregnant women in the third trimester.

Getting pushed around would so annoy me!

valleygirl said...

Hi. Came across your blog via Ladybug74. This post totally made me laugh out loud. I am Korean but born in the U.S. When I first visited Korea while in middle school, I encountered the same pushiness and rudeness. Your post brought back some memories. I'll keep my fingers crossed that a nice hangook person gives up a seat for ya! :)

DementedM said...

Now that I've been pregnant, I think it should be a law that pregnant women be offered a seat in any public place.

Which I suppose would cause an uproar b/c why not a law for disabled folks and the elderly. Fine, make laws for all three of us. We should all have seats.

I think men who've never been through a pregnancy with a SO just have no idea what it's like to be in your third trimester with a 7 lb baby on your bladder.

My husband, for what it's worth, was raised properly and always gives up his seat to anyone who seems to need it more. In fact, in our baby care class, he was the only man who bothered to be sure all the pregnant women had seats, which I thought was strange. The fathers-to-be seemed to be relatively clueless still so maybe there is no hope. sigh.


Ladybug Ann said...

I have given up my seat to people before but I have never bee offered a seat by anyone. Toronto is a very rude city. I think they did a survey of this place before, TO did not do well.

Mony said...

Very interesting topic!
Since I have been visably pregnant I am relishing the little smiles, the knowing glances I get. I feel special. I have yet to try public transport. I remember as a child, waiting in a toilet queue with my grandmother. There was a pregnant lady behind us & my Nan told me that you ALWAYS let a pregnant lady use the toilet before you. A lesson I have always carried.