Saturday, September 3, 2011

Cultural Clash of the day

The Scene.

We were in Şanlıurfa. We had just finished feeding the sacred carp and taking pictures of the shrine at Gölbaşı, in the courtyard of the mosque of Halil-ur-Rahman. We retired to one of the courtyard tea gardens. It was shaded and secluded, a place where we could drink tea and eat a snack without feeling awkward and weird on a Ramadan day.

So we did so, and an older man who spoke no English did his best to be friendly and chat with us, and we speculated about the probable power dynamic among the three cats who kept asking for food. A fairly normal Turkish tea garden experience for us, all told.

After an hour or two, we felt refreshed enough to go back out into the sunny heat to explore the bazaar nearby. We asked for the bill and we paid, giving a tip, as is custom here.

On our way out, we examined the posted menu and determined we had been overcharged. The amount was embarrassingly small by any absolute measure, but insultingly large relative to what the bill should have been. We decided to head back to contest the bill. The tea garden managers protested that our own tabulation was incomplete; we'd ordered more water than we were taking into account.

It is true that when walking around Şanlıurfa in August one tends to consume a lot of water. But the discrepancy in our bill would have corresponded to half a dozen bottles of water we would have consumed while sitting in the shade, which surely would have sent both of us in search of a bathroom at least once or twice.

With our negotiations at an impasse, a customer who spoke decent English who had witnessed the whole scene inserted himself into the situation. Trying to smooth over the situation, he said it was all due to a linguistic misunderstanding.

But, I said, they'd written '20' on a sheet of paper after they'd tabulated everything, and we'd given them 20 lira, and they hadn't given change, and we gave a tip on top of that.

So the guy changed his story. They'd assumed the extra money was a tip, he said.

I made it clear that I doubted that this just happened to be the most informal establishment we'd ever visited - a place that was really little more than a fridge, a tea stand, and a little hot plate for snacks - that automatically added a service charge to the bill. And then accepted tips on top of that.

The guy didn't like my attitude. 'Don't be rude,' he told me.

The whole encounter ended a few fruitless minutes after that, with the tea garden staff having relinquished the amount they'd overcharged us and the tip, and me feeling so angry I could scream. Not just at the audacity and chutzpah of the tea garden staff, but also at the English-speaking fellow customer. But for different reasons.

The Westerner's Perspective.

The English-speaking customer who took it upon himself to mediate obviously never had any intention of handling the disagreement fairly. He was Turkish. The tea garden staff was Turkish. We were foreigners. Of course he was going to side with them against us.

And it's not even as if maybe he really thought the staff was right. His explanation of the staff's side of the story was too obviously false. Only a weak-minded fool would have believed him.

It's sad, really. Locals ripping off foreigners are a phenomenon that everyone agrees exists. You're just helping to hurt your country's international image by insulting the foreigners and defending those louts for no apparent reason beyond blind patriotic loyalty.

I mean, that's got to be what happened, right? There can't be any other way of viewing the situation, right?

Oh yes there can.

The Other Perspective, I Suspect.

You know what I hate, as a fine upstanding Turkish citizen? Loud oafs who see only black and white, and can't distinguish shades of gray.

Like those two self-righteous foreigners who caught the tea garden staff overcharging them. Okay, small deal, it happens all the time. So once I see what's going on, I do what my duties as a human being require me to do: I try to smooth over the situation, let the staff save face, and placate the angry people. It's just a misunderstanding, I tell the foreigners. A mistake was made because the tea sellers don't speak good English. It's okay, nobody tried to overcharge you.

So what does the male foreigner do? He hears my attempt to smooth over the situation and takes it literally. He actually tells me that what I told him can not be what really happened, and he explains why. Is he five years old? Does he think I am five years old? Has he lived his entire life explaining to various people why things they tell him cannot be literally true? He must be deeply unpleasant to sit next to in a movie theater.

He forces me to think of another explanation to smooth things over, and then he tells me that isn't literally true either. Well, perhaps if I go away overnight so that I can think about it, maybe then I'll be able to come up with a story that he won't be able to nitpick. But what kind of creativity does he expect me to exercise on the spot?

And now his voice is rising, as if he is angry at me for some reason. What a rude man.

Clash of Attitudes.

This is what's really unfortunate about this sort of encounter between a culture where directness is valued, and one where maintaining harmony is more important. It would have taken a rare sort of Westerner, possessing saintlike detachment, to not have gotten angry, and I say that having spent a couple of years living in East Asia. It would have taken a rare sort of Westerner not to be provoked further by the Turkish man's admonishment to me, 'Don't be rude'. From his point of view, I was being rude, for not following the societal script. But I am a product of my own culture, and I would have felt like a weak non-confrontational fool if I'd accepted the man's obviously false explanations.

Normally I'm just about the least confrontational person you'd ever meet. I shy away from arguing with people. Yet that man's attempt to peacefully smooth things over made me so angry I wanted to hit him.

Comparing Turkey and Taiwan seems rooted in foolishness and doomed to failure. The two countries are literally at opposite ends of Asia. Yet they're both places where saving face, and maintaining interpersonal harmony, are valued at the expense of being direct and frank.

I'm going to say something about the company I work for in Taiwan here. They don't read this, and no names shall be used. The office unfortunately has a habit of making mistakes that end up inconveniencing us instructors, and of letting small problems snowball into big problems.

I remember one time I confronted office employee J after the company had made a mistake that had moderately inconvenienced me. She told me why it wasn't the office's fault, and I responded by telling her why her explanation logically could not possibly be true.

J's response? She seemed to shrink a little, saying, 'I don't know what to say,' before mumbling some other excuse which didn't make sense either.

I actually felt kind of guilty after that, as if I'd been bullying her and I realized it only after the fact. Then I regained my senses and told myself that, no, I had nothing to feel bad about. And I had the bulk of Western culture to back me up.

Still, from J's point of view I should have just accepted the transparently false explanation and dropped the issue, for the sake of interpersonal harmony.

This cultural difference isn't going to start any wars (we're not talking Samuel Huntington-level stuff here), but I do think it keeps escalating minor differences into major ones. And while I can't speak for anyone else, I am never able to spot it while it's happening. Only in retrospect, once it's too late to alter my behavior.

Incidentally, I don't intend people to read this and take away from it something as simple and insulting as 'Westerners are straight-talking, Easterners employ social lying'. We in the West employ all sorts of white lies and statements of doubtful literal veracity, many of which we're not even consciously aware of because we're too deeply immersed in the culture.

Turkey's still great.

The incident that inspired this post got sparked because the staff at a Turkish tea garden though they could overcharge us without us noticing, but I don't want to harp on them too much. Unscrupulous people are everywhere. They're not especially common here.

This was the only instance of people in Turkey being anything other than friendly and honest with us. Make no mistake, in touristy areas we've been charged touristy prices. My wife's haggled gloriously on occasion (she's much better at that than I am). But this is a culture of haggling, and you're expected to do it with a smile on your face. And there was the enterprising youngster at a remote roadside stand in Cappadocia who sold us thirsty hikers cans of low-quality iced tea at preposterous prices. But that was our fault for not asking how much before we drank the stuff. Lesson learned. All we can do is laugh at his audacity. (More seriously, we've been hit by theft, but that's impersonal, it happens all over the world and it isn't something to dwell on here.)

But most Turks we've met have been friendly and honest, even when linguistic difficulties made the encounter less efficient than it would have been otherwise. The unscrupulous tea garden in Şanlıurfa inspired this post because of the cultural differences highlighted, not because I wanted to rant about them.

1 comment:

Nick Herman said...

Humans are more selfish than logical.