Cross cultural observations, spitting, and international tensions around etiquette more generally

Originally, my blog was aiming at being a ‘research travel blog’ looking at spitting in particular but with a researcher’s ‘eye’ at other cross-cultural aspects. It has however, been far more of the former and less of the latter. In part this was because the blog was actually quite time-consuming (and mind-consuming) as even small posts had usually involved a careful process of analysis, thinking through, and writing up and I quickly became aware that sensitive, informed cross-cultural observation was not easy.

Okay, it’s easy to notice that in Tokyo and South Korea that the cars are white/cream/metallic beige or silver (see earlier posts) or that there is a sliding scale of driving/traffic disorder/order (Japan most ordered and composed, India then China the least) but these are surface level observations that certainly signify much if analysed fully but can be reported with little fear of (much?) offense.

Cross-cultural observations however often start with ‘differences’ because that is what a visitor unfamiliar with a culture notices most of all and the differences that are noticed most forcefully are, understandably, those that make a traveller feel less within their comfort zone. Because I was observing spitting (as a white, male academic from the West) I already had to contend with making sure that my motives were not misconstrued and not intended to ‘look down’ on ‘less developed’ behaviours. I feel that I managed this successfully in relation to spitting but I felt far less comfortable commenting on other differences, and was (and continue to be) concerned not comment freely without first being somewhat more informed.

Hopefully my comments on spitting over the last two months indicate how simply viewing spitting (in let’s say India) and reflecting on it simply with ‘western eyes’ will produce a different understanding (perhaps some lesser tolerance) of the behaviour than if more knowledge about it, its various manifestations, and how it fits into different cultural contexts is present. Further perhaps, the posts that point out that manners and etiquette are not only culturally located but that they are also less about some kind of natural human ‘development’ or even ‘cultural evolution’ towards greater and greater civility (higher civilisation) than many think, may have also shifted – perhaps just slightly – how spitting might be experienced by readers if they now visit India even if they continue to dislike spitting. Will they/you dislike spitting in quite the same way, will they/you experience it differently, will the sliding scale of ‘disgust’ be lower than before, and the sliding scale of acceptance (in that context) be higher?

In just this way there were many differences I could have commented on – and hope to later – that on a surface level and to those unfamiliar with it may seem plain rude, such as many South Koreans ‘barging’ unapologetically into strangers in the street and elsewhere; Chinese pushing their way onto trains before letting disembarking passengers get off (this happens everywhere but just as with the sliding scale on traffic and indeed spitting, in some countries a few people do this – Malaysia or England for example whereas in China most or in the absence of empirical data, a great many do), but these behaviours are not to be understood simply as ‘rudeness’. They are culturally located and involve understanding cultural difference as it relates to personal, private and public (inter)personal ‘space’ as well as acceptable behaviours. Later posts will try to relate some of my cross-cultural observations but through a sociological or cultural lens rather than that simply of the traveller suffering so-called ‘culture-shock’.

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