If you visit someone’s home in one of the burping countries and fail to deliver the traditional oral raspberry on cue, it is unlikely that your hosts will be offended by the omission. First, they will not mistake you for a local. Your blotchy pink skin and grey Marks & Spencer socks will immediately mark you out as an overseas visitor. If those clues don’t give you away, it’s likely that even the briefest bout of conversation will establish that you’re not from round these parts.
Second, your hosts know that people don’t burp where you come from. They’ve seen enough Hollywood movies featuring families in 50s dresses and hairdos held in place with resin sitting at Thanksgiving supper tables to know not to expect Grandpa to release a fulsome belch after every gnaw on a turkey bone.
They will make allowances for you. You’re a funny foreigner, so they won’t expect you to behave like a local.
I’m sure the same atmosphere of understanding and tolerance would prevail at your dinner table, should you find yourself entertaining a particularly demonstrative, let us say, Punjabi (reputedly a burping region). You may have to brief the kids beforehand to prevent them reacting with hysterical giggles when your guest lets rip, but I doubt if you will be offended by the display. Indeed, knowing that your new friend is from belching stock, you might be a little hurt if he doesn’t signal his pleasure at your meatloaf or ratatouille with a display of hearty eructation.
The same is true of other mores, as we assiduous observers of humankind call the traditional customs of particular groups of people. Take Thailand, for example. You’ll find it difficult to find a guidebook to the Land of Smiles that doesn’t warn you about waiing. A wai is the greeting favoured in this part of the world. You put your hands together and hold them up to your face rather reverentially. It’s a sign of respect. As is the way with such things, in practice it can get complicated. The height at which you hold your hands relative to your face, and the angle at which you incline your head, are variables that are determined by the relative social standing of the waier and the waied-to.
Some books tell you it’s very important to master the wai and all its variations; others throw in the towel and admit that, as an interloper, you are bound to make a hash of it, so better to wave effetely and say ‘Hi there’ instead, as you would at home.
When I first came to Thailand the second strategy struck me as the safer (and lazier) way to go, so I would never respond to a wai for fear of ballsing up the response and upsetting everyone. Then I realised that this abstention from a harmless social nicety was making me look a bit louche, so I had a go at waiing, keeping it brief and planting my fingers more or less under my nose, completely ignoring (because not knowing) the relative positions in the community enjoyed by my correspondent and me.
Everyone was delighted! Since I waied everyone at the same level, I must have been getting the majority of them wrong. But people didn’t look offended. Instead, they were thinking, ‘Daft farang; three out of ten for execution but at least he’s making the effort.’
Other warnings trotted out by the guidebooks concern heads and feet. You’re not supposed to touch people’s heads and it’s rude to point with your feet.
Heads first. There are lots of exceptions to this rule. I am allowed to touch Mrs Pobaan’s head and she has no hesitation in touching mine if she thinks she’s spotted a grey hair which needs yanking out. You’re allowed to ruffle kids’ hair in that way that jolly uncles do. Hairdressers are allowed to manhandle your head back and forth to save them having to bend down, and head massagers are allowed to, er, massage your head. There may be other exceptions. Really, what you find is that all of the possible situations in which you might actually want to touch someone’s head are conveniently covered by exceptions. Whose head do you want to touch anyway? Are you accustomed to giving your bank manager a little tickle behind the ear when he gives you a new savings book? Do you yearn to ruffle the hair of a traffic cop when he stops you for speeding? Are you ever tempted to stroke the locks of the beauty who’s sitting on your lap in a go-go bar? Yes, well, you’ll be glad to know that that is also covered by a get-out clause.
It’s pretty much the same with feet. I have never really been one to point at things with my feet, finding that my hands can be employed to the same effect when showing someone the way to the nearest 7-Eleven—and without the danger of falling over. The books tell you it’s a complete no-no to put your feet up on furniture, but nobody told Mrs Pobaan this as her feet are seldom off the fashionable coffee-table we keep in front of the sofa.
When you sit on the floor, you’re told to tuck your feet under your bum so as not to offend anyone. Since this position produces in my legs a state of almost complete blood-loss, I’m excused this requirement when we’re sitting on the floor at Mrs Pobaan’s family’s house. Everybody else ignores it too. Get half a dozen Pobaan in-laws in the TV room and you can find feet directed at all points of the compass, including at Grandma.
It all goes to show how sloppy people’s manners are these days.