“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
~ L. P. Hartley: The Go-Between
(A writing prompt from Write on Edge)
I travelled when I was younger and smiled more often, as part of my job carrying the message of my company’s utter excellence and trustworthiness to far flung marketplaces and offices. Back then when I was first starting out I had a lot to learn and learned it well and with delight.
It was the differences that made the job interesting. Not the little differences in dress and speech, for I picked up new languages with ease or at least those parts of them relating to my job and to socialising. I could get by well enough to understand what was being said and to make myself understood in turn. The differences that counted were the differences in customs and culture which could make or break a whole encounter.
In Japan for instance it is considered impolite to issue a flat “no” to a question, so if you need to make sure the people you’re presenting to understand your pitch then never ask if people understand a point… they’ll say they do to avoid giving offence and the whole thing can break down. Ask what things need clarifying instead, then you’ll learn what’s needed. And while it’s important to give a small gift to your host it’s absolutely improper to expect it to be opened there and then as it puts so much pressure on the receiver to look happy at what may be a substandard offering. Instead make sure the gift is beautifully wrapped so it can be cooed over gratefully then taken away for unwrapping behind safely closed doors.
Every country has its own particular ways. They’re getting homogenised now to an extent but they still linger on and it’s wise to learn the nuances. The Dutch expect punctuality and avoid small talk until after the business is done, while the Egyptians would consider talking business without getting to know their contact as abrupt beyond belief. Little things to learn, and I enjoyed the learning.
They say the past is a different country too. So true. I can smile at the strange costumes worn by the inhabitants and laugh as I recall the language they speak there, so unfamiliar now to my ear through lack of use. But it is in considering the customs of that country that I find the most difficulty. There, a young man with an easy smile and a gift for languages will cast aside the only gift worth receiving and by careless and ill-chosen words drive away the giver, dimming with cold disregard the shining light in her eyes until finally, reluctantly, she grows tired of giving and gives no more. There a young man will not know until it is too late that he is walking into an empty room of old age and isolation and cruel realisation that even behind closed doors the gift is no longer there to unwrap.
It’s a strange custom and a strange country. If it wasn't that bottles grow empty I’d never visit there again.