Published on February 7th, 20132
Americanisms and I
How can you blow your nose in public? But in America, it’s a habit much better than sniffling in public.
by Shweyta Mudgal
First he went all “Aaaachooooo…”, turning to sneeze in his shirt sleeve, being courteous and all. He even followed it up nicely with a prompt, apologetic, “Excuse me.” But then he went and undid the good manner with a big, loud, rather obstreperous act of blowing his nose in public. Thankfully, he used a tissue, so we didn’t see anything, but we heard it all. He may as well have wrapped up the meeting with a finger stuffed up his nose trying to unclog his nasal passage.
I found this behaviour uncouth and just didn’t get it. How could my boss, a higher-up in the ranks, well-travelled, super-cultured, highly professionally-decorated, Ivy-leaguer and partner in one of the top ten architectural firms in the world, be caught blowing his nose in public? An act that you would think, is better off conducted in the private confines of a restroom, far from public eye or ear.
While I tried hard to mask my disgust, there was nothing remotely perturbing about this public-mucus-evacuation-coupled-with-unwelcome-snorts to anyone else in this American office. Everyone who had heard him went about their business as though nothing had happened. An American colleague later clarified that she, like most of her other childhood buddies, was taught, that sniffling is a bad habit, hence one should blow their nose ASAP to avoid the same.
Fair enough. Although quite unfair on the ears that have to go through the torture, I must say.
I figured that would probably make me the odd one out, in this primarily American office, reacting differently to this Snot Issue. Until my fresh-off-the-boat Japanese coworker showed up at my desk, nodding his head in mega disapproval at what would be considered socially offensive behaviour in his native Japan.
This dichotomy of good and bad Manners, which changes from one culture to the other all over the world, has always intrigued me.
In my books, blowing a snot wad in public, which is an across-the-board, commonplace occurence in the US, can safely be classified as an Americanism; i.e a trait typical of an American.
Yet another noteworthy American-ism that first took me aback was: sitting in an office with the feet up on the desk. Usually prevalent among those higher-up on the ladder, this is not an unheard-of phenomenon in the American workplace. There have even been quite a few POTUS (Presidents of The United States) caught on camera in this act; resting their feet on the Oval office desk during meetings with the Chief of Staff, etc.
While in some cultures (Thai, Korean, Arab, specifically) it is considered inappropriate and disrespectful to show others the bottoms of one’s shoes, for most Indians (especially devout Hindus) this would clearly amount to blasphemy. For India is a land where every thing is of some divine value. Work is worship; as is almost everything else. Even a mistaken brush of the foot with any animate or inanimate object, entails an immediate obeisance with folded hands to make amends, lest the Hindu pantheon of Gods unfurl its fury on you.
However, seen from an American boss’s perspective, this act of kicking one’s feet up on a desk at the end of a long workday is meant to insinuate his friendly, warm, ‘one-of-you-guys’ image with the subordinates.
Most Americanisms that have walked into my life over the last decade have become an inherent aspect of my overall persona now; some knowingly, others subconsciously.
Some of these Americanisms have been behavioural:
“Excuse me”ing my way carefully through packed public spaces or saying “I am sorry” in the event of a slightest brush past a random shoulder. Both of which prove to be completely useless in some parts of the world, yet work as perfect peacemakers in others.
Some have been verbal:
Greeting most people with a “Hey, how’s it going?” or applauding the baby’s smallest achievement with a “Good job!” every now and then. (Hardcore American lingo, yet now commonly used all over the world.)
Some Americanisms seemed plausible, right from the start:
Referring to everyone by their first names, irrespective of age, especially at the office. What a great leveller! The liberation one feels, being on a first-name basis with one’s colleagues, old or young, is far more satisfying than having to carry around the presumptuous baggage of colonial remnants such as “Sir”, “Madam” or a “ji” at the end of their name, still prevalent in the quintessential Indian workplace.
Some Americanisms surprised me:
Having to be politically and religiously correct and wish everyone “Happy holidays!” over “Merry Christmas”? That just didn’t sound right after all those years of convent schooling. Yet I saw the reason behind it and went with the flow.
Some Americanisms I conveniently switch in and out of:
The accent, for instance, which turns on and off like a switch, depending on who I am talking to. Some words though, have stuck forever; ‘Schedule’ will never be ‘shed-yule’ again, just as ‘Water’ won’t sound right without rolling the R in it.
And then there are some Americanisms that the cultured desi in me still stubbornly resists from integrating into my system:
Such as blowing my nose in public or putting my feet up on the desk!
A Mumbaikar by birth and a New Yorker by choice, recently-turned global nomad Shweyta Mudgal is currently based out of Singapore. An airport designer by day, she moonlights as a writer. ‘Outside In’ is a weekly series of expat diaries, reflecting her perspective of life and travel, from the outside-in. She blogs at www.shweyta.blogspot.com. And yes, she does blow her nose and put up her feet on the desk when no one’s looking!
(Featured image courtesy bestandworst.com)