When West meets East

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the Twain shall meet”

Of course the twain do meet in today’s small world – but research since the 1980s has illuminated huge differences between western thinking on the one hand and the way people think in the Far East and Middle East.

The burgeoning economies of the Arab world have attracted increasing numbers of westerners to holiday and even work in places that were once obscure names on the neglected pages of the world atlas. The area around central London’s Marble Arch has acquired an Arab look, with many a shop sign in the curly right-to-left Arabic script, and late night café customers sit at pavement tables with their hubble bubble hookahs.  Such a change is not universally popular.

In the late ’60s, the poet-writer, Dom Moraes, revisited India, the land of his birth, and found that he was a stranger.  Speaking no word of any Indian language, he was in the hands of his manservant, and had to learn how to manage the master-servant relationship.  For example he could not bypass his man and deal directly with lower caste subcontractors, such as the sweeper: the hierarchy had to be maintained.  He learned, but did not understand, that his man would fiercely protect him from exploitation by vendors, but considered it his right to swindle his master on the daily food shopping.  He noticed that servants would not make eye contact with their masters, nor do any of the things that build a personal relationship.  In short, he became acutely aware that East is East and very different from the West.

Of course, the East has long been part of the British scene, with curry now the most popular dish in restaurants and take-outs.  Yet, amazingly for a nation that only recently relinquished a vast empire, and which has adopted a sizeable number of Indian words into the language, Britain remains largely ignorant of Eastern ways.  In London, the Sikhs in Southall, the Bengalis in Brick Lane and the Hindus in Harrow have clustered together like the Arabs of Marble Arch, in a sort of reverse colonisation, forming communities that are distinct from the host community.

Unfortunately, host communities often feel threatened by visible gatherings of foreigners whose customs, dress and language are different from their own.  They feel anxious about losing their jobs, their homes and even their womenfolk to the invaders.  Attitudes and values can be very different.

In southern Europe and many eastern countries, deadlines are considered to be loose indicators, not commitments.  When a friend of mine first went to live in Spain, she believed (in common with many other English people) that the word manana meant “Tomorrow”.  In time she realised that, for the Spanish, manana simply means “not today”.

An equally frustrating word, regularly used in the Middle East, is “N’sha’llah”  or “Inshallah”.  It translates as ‘God willing’ but actually means, “I take no responsibility for what might happen in the future”.  Both the Spanish and the Arabs (and the nations in between) have a relaxed attitude to time keeping and deadlines, and things get done when they get around to them.  It’s not that way in Britain.

Certain practices give offence simply because they are insensitive, and some nations are more likely to take offence than others.  However, two thoughts should guide us:

  1. We all react when someone does commonplace things differently from us, whether it be a handshake or the way they eat a steak.  We therefore need to be aware of the reflex of prejudice that is within us.
  2. We need to be sensitive towards others, and aware of our own conduct, in case it gives offence to them.

Above all, we should never cause someone to lose Face.  Not only is it discourteous, it can make an enemy for life.  Face is a concept that dominates social and business contact throughout the Far East.  Losing face is to lose dignity, and for the Chinese that is like losing their eyes, nose and mouth.  The embarrassment is actually felt in the face.  Social relations should be conducted in such a way that everybody’s face is maintained.  Paying respect to someone is called “giving face”.  Think of the English expression, “I couldn’t show my face in there” – it refers to the way we experience humiliation, and goes a long way towards helping westerners to understand the concept of face saving.

There’s more, of course, but that’s a good place to start.

Filed under: public speaking, speaking