We  women are wont to complain with varying degrees of good nature or shrillness, of the lack of manners, perhaps the general uselessness, of British men.   However it is only when you are brought face to face with the customs of other races that you realise that in general, and across all social categories, the Western man extends considerable courtesy to women, so much so that we tend to take it quite for granted.

For example, if you are in, say Singapore, or Japan, you discover that men do not defer to women in terms of space, and you take this courtesy so much as a given that you are completely taken aback when it is not accorded.      As you cross the lobby of the Hilton hotel, Singapore and a waiter’s path is going to intersect yours, you sail on in the serene assumption that, naturally, he will give way to you.   There are two reasons, a) you are a guest and he is an employee, and b) you are a lady and (you assume) he is a gentleman.    It never crosses your memsahib’s mind that he will not accord you  priority, and when he doesn’t, you are astonished and annoyed.

Foreign staff even in our own country can have different cultural expectations to ourselves, and when last in Bath I found myself completely irritated by the manners (or lack of them) of the staff.   The very name of the hotel was an irritation – Hilton, Bath City.    We don’t say, Bath City.   We say, City of Bath.       Service was not that good in general.   After waiting for a short time in Reception a male receptionist approached John, who gave his name.   Whereupon the response was, I’ll deal with you shortly, and he disappeared, as though we were not the guests he was expecting.   But eventually we achieve our room, which is fine.    The location is excellent.   In due course we go down to dinner, where the food is good.    The Head Waiter and some of his staff are of some Eastern Country, possibly Indian or Indonesian, I am not quite sure.    Now as we all know, under old fashioned rules, a lady being taken out to dinner never addressed the waiting staff at all, but made all requests or complaints to her host, who dealt with them as he saw fit.    However, this somewhat antiquated practice is rarely seriously observed in modern usage.   But here I find I am totally  ignored by the Head Waiter.    He addresses all his remarks to John.   It’s as though I am not present, or someone of lesser rank who does not require to be acknowledged.      When the food comes, John is served first with all presentation;  mine is plonked in front of me.  John’s food is cleared away first.   He is offered extra bread; I am not.    When his glass is empty, it is topped up but mine, which I do not empty, is left unattended.  I am made to feel that I ought to be  eating elsewhere, behind a curtain.   I complain in their complaints card that they do not observe in their restaurant the expected European customs of courtesy towards women, but I doubt anything will come of that.

Years ago   we were entertained in Singapore by a native of that place.   Unlike many of his sophisticated and charming colleagues, this man had not had the experience of working in Europe or the USA.   Elisabeth, then a teenager, was with us as my companion, and this man’s wife joined us.   He chose a restaurant that seemed fashionable and highly rated but which proved to be the most unattractive dining experience that I have ever endured.   Food was served according to your ailments.   You told the waiter you had a sore knee, sluggish bowel, headache, whatever, and he then served you what was deemed appropriate.   I found this a wholly unattractive proposition.    There was no way I was going to discuss, in a public restaurant, with an unknown waiter in S’English – as dire a corruption of English as you will ever have the misfortune to hear – anything to do with my health.    I promptly withdrew to the convenient position of the English milady who doesn’t address the waiter –  and left John to deal with it.   I think he said we were tired and jet lagged.   The food was truly horrible.   I had some muddy soup with what appeared to be snails with shells on drowning in its murky depths.   I had difficulty not retching.    Meanwhile I realised that our hostess had been brought along for the specific purpose of entertaining Elisabeth and me in order to leave the men free to discuss lofty business matters unaffected by the silliness of women.    Her method of entertaining us was to be extremely solicitous about our food, worrying about each and every mouthful we ingested, and to agree immediately with everything we said.   I reflected Dictator’s wives were probably treated like this, in which case it was no fun at all being a Tyrant’s spouse.

Eventually I asked her about her domestic arrangements.    She herself worked, and she had a Philipino maid as housekeeper and who looked after the three children.   I asked if the maid had children?   Somewhat surprised, she said yes, she had 3, in the Philipines.     And how often does she see them, I enquired?     Oh, every 2 or 3 years.   After a short pause, I observed that it must be sad for this woman to look after someone else’s children and never see her own.   Our hostess gave a little shrug.   “She come from a poor country.”

When it came to the dessert, I did address the waiter.    “I want a pudding that’s very bad for you.”   The waiter looked at me sourly.   “Madam pleases to make joke.”   We declined dessert.   Our host drove us back to our hotel, but when we reached his car, he simply got in, and left us to follow suit.   No holding doors open for him.    When we got back to our hotel, and our hosts had left us,  we ordered Death by Chocolate, and enjoyed every last decadent mouthful.

It is important to note, I told myself, that our host by his lights was not discourteous.   He had invited us to dinner and paid for it (charged it anyway).    He had chosen a restaurant which presumably he thought of interest and benefit.   He had provided a companion for his guest’s wife and daughter and she had applied herself diligently to the task.   He had driven us to and from our hotel.   The fact that I am left thinking him a little lacking in good manners is not his fault.   By his lights, he has done all that could be expected of him, but we have different cultural expectations, and with typical Western arrogance it does not occur to us there might be other views than our own.

However, I am still decidedly under-impressed and when I return I view the British male with greater appreciation.   He may not be a great romantic, seduce you with flattering words, but on the whole he’s a kind and decent fellow, courteous and good mannered, gallant to women, and he doesn’t think you should eat your dinner in invisible silence behind a curtain, and preferably not with him.


About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

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