Essay: Multicultural Manners Norine Dresser

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[. . .] Foreign teachers in Southeast Asia are informed never to touch the heads of children, since these cultures believe that "the spirit resides in the head; thus the head is sacred" and touching it is not a sign of affection but brings bad luck.[footnoteRef:13] In Asia, Africa and the Middle East, showing the soles of the feet while seated is also an extremely rude gesture and should be avoided. Hugging and kissing of strangers is also to be avoided in Asia, as in the example that Dresser gave from Vietnam in which an American hugged and kissed a women he was greeting at the airport, causing her to push him away and start crying.[footnoteRef:14] Even worse was the case of Mr. Keck, who greeted a Chinese grandmother by kissing her on the cheek. In Asia, seniors are always treated with deference and respect, so "Mr. Keck should have nodded to the older woman, giving her a verbal greeting."[footnoteRef:15] Showing too much affection or familiarity to older people in Asia and the Middle east is a very grave social error, and in many countries bowing is considered more polite than even shaking hands. In Asia, "the person in the inferior position bows longer and lower," depending on age and social status, while Buddhist in Southeast Asia will always "hold their hands together in front of their chins in a prayer-like gesture and nod their heads."[footnoteRef:16] [13: Dresser, p. 15.] [14: Dresser, p. 15.] [15: Dresser, p. 16.] [16: Dresser, p. 17.]

This is not at all like Latin America and Mediterranean countries, where hugging and kissing as a form of greeting is common, as it is between males in the Middle East. In Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, same-sex handholding and kissing are not considered homosexual behavior. Dresser also notes that in the Middle East, Central Asia and many other places, the thumbs up gesture has the same meaning as the middle-finger gesture in North America and should be absolutely avoided.[footnoteRef:17] In many non-Western cultures, and also Latin America, avoiding eye contact with superiors and customers is a sign of deference and politeness, nor evasiveness or rudeness. Once again, this depends on differences in age, status, gender and social class, where social relations are far more formal and less egalitarian than in North America and Western Europe.[footnoteRef:18] [17: Dresser, p. 19.] [18: Dresser, p. 22.]

Ideas about luck, spirituality and superstition vary greatly across cultures as well, although in Christian North America there has always been great superstition of traditional animism, spiritualism, and African and Native American religions as a form of Satanism. From the colonial period until well into the 20th Century, these religions and cultures were often suppressed in the United States, until attitudes became more liberal in the 1960s and 1970s. Among Buddhists and Hindus, for example, the swastika is a symbol of long life and good health rather than of Hitler, Nazism and the crimes of the Third Reich. A common belief in Australia hold that sacred rocks removed from certain aboriginal sites will bring bad luck, while in Hawaii stolen volcanic rocks will bring down the wrath of the goddess Pele. Anthropologists call the belief in the power of scared objects to bring good or bad fortune "contagious magic." [footnoteRef:19] Among the 100,000 Santeria followers in Florida, the use of magic powders, candles and sacrifice of small animals brings good luck, and police officers in the state attend special classes so that they will not automatically assume that those involved in Santeria and vodun are criminals "or that practitioners in a trance are engaged in devil worship."[footnoteRef:20] Many traditional and tribal peoples believe that nature is controlled by good and evil spirits, and even practitioners of monotheistic religions like Judaism, Islam and Christianity also retain elements of polytheism, animism, spiritualism, shamanism, fortune telling and astrology that are officially forbidden or regarded as Satanic practices. In Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, belief in ghosts, demons and evil spirits is common, as are efforts to appease and placate them. Dresser noted that a group of Hmong students were terrified by a solar eclipse because "any force powerful enough to cause the sun to disappear could potentially carry them away as well."[footnoteRef:21] In Asia, the art of feng shui in the design and construction of all buildings is designed to appease the wind and water spirits, and bring good luck to the occupants.[footnoteRef:22] To the Christian mind, such practices will seem like Devil-worship, while to the modern, rationalist mind they are superstitions from the Dark Ages, but they represent very real forces of nature to those who believe in them. [19: Dresser, p. 126.] [20: Dresser, p. 127.] [21: Dresser, p. 128.] [22: Dresser, p. 129.]

Dresser's book is very difficult to summarize given its scope, but essentially it is an attempt to explain for the general reader the difference between modern, Western culture in the United States, with its democratic, egalitarian and libertarian values, and societies in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America that have more traditional, authoritarian and patriarchal concepts about age, gender, status, manners and education. This is where the book is most useful, at least for the mass market audience that does not have the time or the inclination to take university courses on international relations, anthropology, comparative religions and other cross-cultural studies. This book also has a wealth of details about the great variety of attitudes about food, clothing, colors, hand gestures, luck and superstitions about which a white, middle class reader in North America would simply not be well informed. Those who have traveled and worked in these countries would have gradually picked up information about these on their own, such as the need to show respect for seniors in Asia, not touching money with the hands, or that the color red and the number four are bad luck in Korea. Simply reading the book would be very helpful to anyone who wishes to avoid giving unnecessary offense and egregious errors in manners in social and business… [END OF PREVIEW]

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