Editor’s note: This op-ed is by award-winning journalist Telly Halkias. It first appeared in the Bennington Banner.
The first time I visited England as a teenager, a teacher of mine warned me to be aware of certain customs, practices and terms. Having attended Oxford University as a graduate student, he rattled off his laundry list, and I could barely keep up.
“Finally,” he said, “never lift your index and middle finger together facing you, sort of in a reverse peace sign. That’s the same as flipping someone the bird in the U.S.”
That august tutorial, received at age 14, made me curious of mannerisms, phrases and most of all general protocols of other cultures. I started compiling them in my memory banks and have been lucky enough during my 17 years overseas to make sense of some of them.
For example, on that first trip to England I learned right away that American English and British English have a variety of words and phrases that need deciphering or would initially make no sense to each other.
Some are easy to sort out, such as our current tendency to use the term “cell” for the phone in our pocket as opposed to the nearly universal international term off “mobile.” Or calling an elevator a “lift.” Or a pharmacist a “chemist.” Or, I guess, even a doctor’s office a “surgery.”
But there are words that drift from any semblance of familiarity. A bathroom is a “loo.” A police car is a “panda” (I get it, but come on!). An undershirt is a “vest.” London’s Underground subway is “the Tube.” And, perhaps my personal favorite: A salesman is a “counter jumper.”
Other practices, such as punctuality and efficiency, seem to follow along ethnic-cultural lines, or as some on the Weather Channel might suggest, along cooler-warmer climate boundaries.
Anyone who has ever visited a Mediterranean country knows what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter if you are in Southern Europe, North Africa or Asia Minor. There’s something about nice weather that causes everyone to hit the brakes when checking their watch.
I can’t even being to describe how many Greek friends of mine would say to meet somewhere at 3 p.m., and show up at 3:30 p.m. instead (this was actually considered “not bad a wait”).
The same was true when I was in Milan as well as in Barcelona. And this wasn’t just with buddies and dates. On a half dozen instances in Cairo and Tel-Aviv, when I had appointments to conduct official business, I had to wait an average of an hour for the administrator in question to show.
Basically, I learned it was OK to be late; most often, so was the other party. But those were habits I couldn’t take with me to Germany, Austria, the Netherlands or Denmark. There, even the slightest tardiness meant missing your appointment and insulting business partners. And when buddies told you to catch the 2:45 p.m. train to Stuttgart, and you showed up at 2:50 p.m., they were miles away on that train — not waiting for you to arrive and make the 3:15.
Another widespread European custom is trying to find anyone with whom to do business in August. Northerners, who love whatever sunshine they can get, all head to the Mediterranean. For their part, Mediterraneans all pour out of their cities to their rural ancestral roots, apparently to make room for the inbound Vikings and Huns. Hello? Is anyone home?
One final thing is how to properly address people’s names when greeting them. On a trip to Korea during my Army years, I was to escort several senior Korean Army officers through a simulation exercise at an American headquarters. I had just arrived in country and prepared by learning the dignitaries’ names from an advance roster.
However, I was not attuned to listing surnames first and given names second in what is common, though not exclusive, Oriental practice. On reviewing final preparations with a public relations liaison, he quickly reprimanded me: “You’re going to make fools of all of us!” Fortunately, the Korean generals wore bilingual nametags, so I made the adjustment and saved face — by a whisker.
Over the years, friends of mine have urged me to put this stuff in a book, but there have been many written on the subject, to include official diplomatic training materials. Yet looking back, I can better appreciate my teacher’s efforts at preparing me for culture shock, and keeping me from getting beat up while riding the Tube.