Thursday, 16 May 2013

Hello you Chinese - How About Some Manners?

"Intercultural training" - my heart always sinks a little when I hear those words. Picture former teacher who got a freelance opportunity to tell the IT department abroad how to cut up food, what to say instead of Howdy, and what never, repeat never to say when presented with a sheep's eye in your soup.

These courses are especially in demand when it comes to China. "How to Do Business in China", "Intercultural Chinese Etiquette", "Understanding the Chinese" are just some of the courses employees have to attend before a placement or a short stint in the People's Republic. And only yesterday did I look at some online advice for  executives on the subtleties of when to wear a dark blue or a black suit. God forbid us Westerners might actually screw up a deal by offending the obviously extremely highly-strung Chinese fashion sense!

Change of scenery. A Munich department store, escalators. A huge group of Chinese tourists shoulder their way onto the steps, some of them already one floor up. The two groups communicate with each other at the top of their voices - gesticulating and shouting at highest pitch. Totally oblivious to other customers and  their shocked glances. I have no idea, - and to be honest I'm also not that interested whether that is the done thing in a Chinese market. In a central European department store this sort of behaviour is not on.

Recently, we were in Salzburg (Austria). We visited an outdoor café in the Altstadt with a very nice view onto Mozart's birthplace. 10 minutes later a huge group of Chinese tourists had arrived, gathered all the free chairs available (without asking) and grouped them round a table. All of them had huge McDonald's lemonade paper pitchers from which they slurped noisily. They plonked their McDonald's drinks on the café table. After a while one of them got up, hailed a waitress as if she was a dog and started shouting at the top of his voice in atrocious English. "Twenty orange juices" was what he wanted and somehow managed to communicate. Volume alone must have done the trick. Meanwhile the other members of the groups talked to each other in shouty voices and took photos in "thumbs up" pose. Gone was the  lovely scenery at the nice cafè - everybody fled.

It really seems very odd indeed that Westerners going to China need to be coached within an inch of their lives in superior Chinese manners when at the same time, Chinese people coming here, behave in a totally objectionable way. I can already hear the culturally versed interlocutors who explain that this sort of behaviour is actually a sign of appreciation in Chinese society and dates from the T'ang Dynasty. Maybe. But I don't really care. Intercultural awareness works both ways.

And it is high time that Chinese people wanting to travel here in the West acquainted themselves with some local manners.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Europe Is What You Want It to Be

What is Europe? Nobody knows - and even reduced to a geographical concept it tends to get a bit murky in the East - are  the Urals its border? Who knows? Europe is obviously something different depending on your viewpoint. It could be a postwar dream of a peaceful harmonious union of thriving countries working together amicably. It could be a similar concept to the United States of America. Or it could be the ugly bureaucratic face of a monolithic ogre.

Whatever it is, it isn't ONE thing. It's a multi-faceted concept which - importantly - is subject to change, and can be changed and moulded according to specific needs, most obviously economic ones.

So... if you don't like what you see, or you think it should be different, or put more emphasis on an aspect you find important - why not change it accordingly? Say, you think there should be more ethnic minorities represented in the European Parliament, then why not make yourself heard? Why not actively go out, and do something about it?  Because you can. Everthing is possible. There are so many initiatives, grassroot movements, working groups of all descriptions, internet opportunities to take part in, to ask questions and get answers, to move things around when it comes to European affairs.

I agree that they may not be brilliantly communicated (maybe the EU knows better than to waste money on expensive PR campaigns - unlike so many local governments?) but they are there. A little internet research will open up a whole avenue of participation and interactive opportunities. You can follow every EU organisation on social media, thousands of EU representatives are on twitter, and will actually follow back and engage in conversations,  they're very active and approachable! There is stuff for children, for teachers, for language-learners, for students.. you name it! Just have a look and get involved, have your say!

But don't just shoot the whole thing down on the basis of grumpily saying "Naa, bunch of bureaucrats who got us into the mess we're in". Because it isn't like that.

Europe is fun, it's varied, it's anything you'd like it to be. Just give it a go!