Maswood Alam Khan
“Where is your home, brother?” is the question we Bangladeshis are quite used to asking while talking to a stranger? It is not courteous at all. One, who feels sick of being poked by such a question, would answer “Bangladesh” to stop you from proceeding further. Weirder is the question I often heard among our people in Bangladesh, especially among the females, asking one another in the mid of their conversations: “What meals did you have in your lunch?” Exchanging experiences and stories about spouses is also common among ladies when they idle away their time over telephone or in a waiting room. “Your telephone number?” or “Your home address?” is a very common curiosity we in Bangladesh show immediately after being introduced with someone. Such an attempt to peek into someone’s personal affairs may invite embarrassment on the part of a curious questioner.
Back in 2008 as I was enjoying a cruise on a ship on my way to Ellis Island to visit the site of the Statue of Liberty near New York, I became quite friendly with an elderly guy as we were conversing on the history of America. At one stage he offered me a cigarette and helped lit the cigarette. I thought he was going to be my friend. As we were readying ourselves to disembark from the ship I forwarded to him my notebook in a frank gesture to write his telephone number and addresses on. Oh no! It was a blunder I committed! The way he stared at me I got dumb; I felt scared, I thought he was going to shoot at me. Later, I came to learn that it was not the American courtesy to seek one’s personal telephone number or contact address. That is why you don’t find in any business card an American will present you his or her personal contact numbers or addresses.
But, in Bangladesh, I still remember the pattern of a business card of an important government official. Not only his office telephone numbers and home telephone numbers were mentioned, it was a compendium of his complete bio-data having his photograph, his home telephone number, his e-mail address and the street address of his residence with a map drawn on the back of the card. I couldn’t help my temptation to ask him a bit sarcastically: “Sir, you have not mentioned in the card your date of birth!” He in glee wrote on the face of his business card not only his birthday, but also the birthday of his wife and additionally, the date of their marriage anniversary.
My niece Tamanna, an IT professional, is my teacher on etiquette; she has been living in America for more than a decade. Tamanna advised me: “Mama, Don’t ask any personal questions, such as ‘what is your address?’ while talking to an American. At best you may ask for his business card when you would think it is safe to swap cards. Avoid touchy topics, such as religion, politics, sex, philosophy, death, divorce, and other potentially sensitive topics. Don’t go overboard on a person’s life and background; neither should you be paranoid about a stranger.”
Yes, before you strike up a conversation with a stranger you have to observe his or her body language. It is important not to approach people if you are not seriously interested in being friends with them, or else it may come back later to haunt you. Of course, you may make friendship with a stranger if you can master the art of starting a conversation with a man or a woman in a public place.
Greet and smile. You may greet anybody. The common greetings in America are “Hello”, “How are you?”, “How are you doing?”, “How are you going?” or even just “Hi.” The proper answers to these greetings are: “Fine”, “Great” or “Very well, thank you.”
Some people may say: “See you later”, which is just an expression. People say this even if they never plan to see you again. One important tip: “Keep your distance when conversing”. If an American feels you are standing too close, he or she may step back without even thinking about it.
The best topic to start a conversation on with a stranger is “weather”. Ask in a general, friendly tone, “How are things with you? Wonderful weather we’re having today!”
Of course there are other friendly topics such as sports, food, music, computers, movies, books, fashion, etc. An American may be asked what genre of music s/he likes: Hip Hop, R&B, Pop, Reggae, Country, Jazz, Classical or Rock.
A strangely sweet incident in America I will never forget was a ‘Hug” made on me from a stranger at midnight on a desolate road and it was from a lady. Late at night, at around twelve, I got down from the commuter train at Greenbelt Station and proceeded towards my house at Niagara Place at College Park. I started walking. Not a single soul was there on the streets on that chilly night. I was alone. All the roads, streets and lanes were similar. All the houses were identical. As ill luck would have it, I lost my sense of direction. I forgot even the holding number of my house. I don’t know the block with crossroads. Only thing I could remember was “Niagara Place”. My head was reeling. I felt my heart thudding wildly with fear. I felt tired of walking.
Suddenly I found a lady, in her late 40s, smoking on a road, perhaps in front of her house. With some trepidation I approached her and narrated my tragedy. She gave me the direction in American style saying: “Go down the road, find an intersection of X Road and Y Road and proceed south, pass a few blocks and there you go to find your house”. But I couldn’t comprehend her directions told in unclear American accent. Apologetically I said: “Madam, I am a newcomer to your country. I am afraid I couldn’t follow clearly your directions”. The lady could realize my hapless condition and said: “No problem. I will take you down the road”. As I followed her I was whispering to myself: “God, you are great!” The moment I recognized my house I thanked the lady in my utmost tone of gratitude. Oh my God! She came very close to me and hugged me; I could feel her cheek touching mine! I was flabbergasted! But, mind you, it was not a ‘hugging’ meaning ‘loving’!
Later, I found out “Hugging or even kissing” is very normal in America as a sign of trust and respect, a courtesy also shown as a symbol of gratitude. Romantic love in America is not measured by such hugging or kissing. Hugging or kissing is social etiquette. A polite and respectful token kiss on the cheek and a gentle hug are the normal forms of greeting. A brief and respectful embrace and a light kiss on the cheek is an exhibition of decorum in a social gathering. A peck on the cheek is a common American form of greeting. They call it holy hugging and kissing, as the New Testament instructs all believers to greet one another by kissing: “Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss”. But it would, of course, be an “unholy kiss” if a man creeps to a lady at the start of a meeting, embraces her manfully and slobbers a big wet kiss on her lips!
So, next time, when you or I meet an American man or woman, or for that matter a gentleman or a lady in Bangladesh, France or in Britain, we should remember the etiquette of holy hugging and respectful kissing. And, of course, you and I may ask an American “Have you taken your lunch?” as a gesture of courtesy; but for God’s sake don’t ask him or her: “What were the items of your lunch: vegetables, beefs, fast-food or simply a drink?”
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