Anyone who has travelled has probably noticed that people raised in different countries or in different cultures display markedly different traditions in hospitality and politeness. Indeed, what is considered polite in one culture, may be quite rude in another. For example, whether to keep silent or to strike up a conversation with complete strangers, is either rude or polite depending on your culture.
I was born and raised in England in a culture where discretion, privacy and ‘keeping yourself to yourself’ were valued traditions. Speaking to strangers was not encouraged. People were most hospitable and friendly – but only once they had been introduced to new people.
However, I have been lucky enough to spend some time in both Italy and the United States of America, where I found traditions of hospitality and politeness to be very different.
I experienced Italian hospitality first hand on a crowded railway carriage travelling, one afternoon, from Genoa to Florence. Sinking gratefully into an empty seat, I was berated in rapid Italian by a gentleman who was returning to this seat – it had not been ‘spare’ after all. I understood his meaning, although I did not speak a word of the Italian language, and I apologised in English, and got up to allow him back into the seat. The gentleman obviously had no understanding of the English language but he, too, realised my genuine mistake. He smiled and gestured for me to remain in the seat, and he himself remained standing in the corridor for the remainder of our journey. The other occupants of the carriage smiled and nodded at me and made me feel quite welcome amongst them. I feel that if this had been England, a foreigner who made a mistake would not always be so kindly treated.
Transport also featured in the differences I noticed between English and American culture. I flew to New York on a plane with mainly English passengers. We sat together in near silence. Nobody spoke to me nor, I expect, to anyone else they did not know. They felt it was not polite to intrude on someone else’s privacy; surely it would have been rude to ask a complete stranger about their personal business. However, when I travelled across the United States, whether by plane or Greyhound bus, I was never short of conversation. Conversation was going on all around me and whoever sat next to me was happy to introduce themselves and ask me about myself. They obviously felt it would have been rude not to speak to another person, whether they were strangers or not.
I have travelled around England from Dawlish to Newcastle and from Norwich to Hereford, yet I can think of no instance where a stranger has struck up a conversation or offered me the time of day. Of course, everyone was extremely polite if I asked a question, but there always had to be a reason to speak. Conversely, in Italy I was regularly asked whether I was a visitor to the country; people offered to translate for me in shops, and a gentleman carried my bags to the station for me.
In the United States, more than one person offered to take my photograph at tourist spots, several people offered to take me on tours around their local area and I was invited to visit people in their own homes. I was overwhelmed by the sincerity of people’s friendliness and hospitality. There are people I have known in England for years who have never invited me into their home! However, the English people are not less polite, it is just the way they have been raised: it is their culture.
I hope that people from other cultures are not offended by the English reserve. It is important to understand these differences in culture to avoid feeling insulted by the way foreigners behave. I believe that the majority of people intend to be polite and hospitable and that people of different cultures should assume the best of each other. As I found in Italy, where manners and language are mis-matched, a friendly smile goes a very long way towards reaching mutual understanding and friendship.