RadioBDC Logo
Ink | Coldplay Listen Live
 
 
< Back to front page Text size +

Culchah

Posted by Robin Abrahams  September 6, 2007 07:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

I've been working on a theory lately ... in the "chatting with friends over drinks" sense, that is, not the "gathering data and painstakingly analyzing the evidence" way, of course; what fun would that be? (Like the late, great, and underestimated Alfred Adler, I believe that a psychologist's place is in the coffeeshop, not the laboratory.) My theory is that for every culture or subculture, there is a sort of Prime Directive that guides all notions of good manners, some key value from which all the specific rules and rituals flow. In Boston, for example, it seems that the highest mannerly value is to get out of someone's way. To the Boston mind, other people are best thought of as independent agents with their own goals and desires, and you show the highest respect for people by allowing them to pursue these goals unimpeded by you. Hence, we stick to ourselves and tend not to say hello, offer assistance, strike up small talk with strangers. This may strike people from other parts of the country as rude, but it's not rude to us.

This is why, during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Bostonians simply packed up and left town. "You want our city? Here you go! We'll just be down the Cape or over by Tanglewood or something. Drop us a line when you're done and we'll come back." Abandoning our visitors was our deeply sincere and perverse Bostonian way of welcoming them.

It took me eight years to figure that out about Boston, so I don't expect I've entirely cracked the nut of the Prime Directive for Australian manners in two visits. But I suspect it has something to do with equality, with treating other people first and foremost like people, regardless of what social role you encounter them in. Australia was birthed in degradation, cruelty, and pain during a time when the belief in the inherent equality, dignity, and worth of all people was just beginning to take root and spread. And the guards who ran the penal colonies were more vicious and corrupt than the convicts they oversaw.

This left the Australians with a deep suspicion of authority and social hierarchies, which plays out in all sorts of ways. For example, it is bad manners in Australia to sit in the back of a cab, if you are a solo passenger. You don't sit in the back like the driver is your servant--you sit up front, as though he or she were a friend giving you a ride to the airport.

And I think it might not be just a matter of treating people who work for you as equals as a show of noblesse oblige--they're willing to return the favor and see you as a person, too. A couple of days into our stay, I was languishing with a jet-lag-induced illness in the hotel room when the maid came to clean. I asked her if I could just have some clean towels, and when she handed them to me she asked quite seriously if I was all right to be alone. I really do believe if I'd said no, she'd have abandoned her cart and gotten me some help right away. Jet lag hits me hard, so I have had all too much practice in shooing away hotel maids with wan and greenish demeanor. Australia is the first place I ever felt as though the maid thought, "Oh dear, a sick person" rather than "Oh neat, a room I don't have to clean."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at missconduct@globe.com.
contributor

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

Need Advice?

Curious if you should say "bless you" to a sneezing atheist? How to host a dinner party for carbophobes, vegans, and Atkins disciples—all at the same time? The finer points of regifting? Ask it here, or email missconduct@globe.com.

Ask us a question

Required
Required
archives

Browse this blog

by category