I can’t remember if it was when the guy on line for airport check-in wouldn’t stop inching up directly behind us, or the 10th time I was cheerfully interrogated about my name and ethnicity, but at some point on my two week trip to Sri Lanka and the Maldives I was reminded that most of the standards of etiquette we write about here are very, very Western. We’ve addressed this before, but it helps to be reminded once and again that there is no objectively correct way of doing things.
I began noticing the little things almost as soon as I got there. How women needed to cover their shoulders in temple, but a bared midriff in a sari is totally acceptable. How eating with your hands and your face low to the plate is preferred. How the concept of an orderly line just didn’t seem to exist. How no one thinks twice about bus drivers pulling over to chat with friends on the side of the road, or stopping their chores to strike up a conversation with a stranger. How bluntly asking “Are you Christian?” (actually, “Are you Christmas?”) with a smile is totally fine.
(Sometimes our clashing ideas of “normal” social interactions clashed. It doesn’t help that the constant friendliness, and really, Sri Lankans were so friendly, made us even more wary of being taken advantage of, as a few times a polite “Hello, how are you? Where are you from? Here, let me help you” ended with requests for cash for guides we never agreed to have. More than once we probably barked at well-meaning strangers just wanting to start up a conversation because we didn’t want it to turn into a solicitation plot 20-minutes later.)
But what struck me was that, despite all the cultural differences and language barriers, the thing that gets across is when someone makes an effort. We could tell when someone meant well, even if they didn’t do things like we would, and I hope we came off the same way. And that’s what this is about. Etiquette practices are a good shorthand for conveying good intentions, but they are meaningless if you don’t actually mean well. But even if you do mean well, just don’t smell Buddha’s flowers.