Jerusalem is a multicultural city, and I have friends and contacts of different languages, religons, ethnicities and cultural traditions. People who live in more homogeneous settings sometimes find it confusing to move among cultures. I was discussing this with a friend recently. Being a person who writes (and talks) to figure out what she thinks, I was listening to what I was saying to see how I deal with the situation.
(Have I made sense yet?)
I heard myself saying that good manners just means putting the other person before yourself, or appearing to do so, and if you do that you’ll be pretty safe anywhere and with anyone. I think that’s about right.
Men in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community here avoid physical contact with women who are not related to them. When I am introduced to a man in that community, I don’t offer him my hand. I once met an archbishop from one of the Eastern Orthodox churches, and for some reason I was unsure if he shook hands with women or not. So when we were introduced, I hesitated for a moment and watched him for small signals of what he was expecting. He kept his hands clasped over his pectoral cross, so I took the hint.
On the other hand, I am not into kissing strangers. In fact, I really dislike it. However, in some of the French circles I am involved in, it is not at all unusual for new acquaintances to kiss you goodbye fifteen minutes after they meet you. Again, I watch the signals. So as not to make them uncomfortable, I go ahead and offer my cheek and kiss the air next to their ear. (Of course, if they were watching my signals, it wouldn’t happen at all…)
In some cultures it is rude to sit with your legs crossed. I am not aware of any culture in which it is rude not to cross your legs, so if I’m not sure, I just don’t do it. Some cultures have intricate rules about how men and women or superiors and inferiors or older and younger people interact. It is pretty much impossible for an outsider to know and follow all these unwritten codes, so how does a person who is interested in interacting with all kinds of people behave?
The way I do it is to try to be kind. For the last fifteen years or so (at a guess) kindness has been the personal quality that I have been working on cultivating and developing. I am not particularly good or holy or wise or brilliant or generous, and I’m not sure how to become those things. But kindness is behavioral; I can work on that.
As it turns out, being kind and having good manners are very similar in many ways. It’s just a question of thinking of the other person, of putting their comfort, needs and desires, before my own. “Just”. Okay, this is one of those simple things that aren’t easy, but it’s possible to work on it, to come closer and closer to this desired goal.
As the tshirt says, “Please be patient. I’m a work in progress.”