We often had rural home-stay guests, folk from around the world who wanted a real Kiwi farm experience. Mum would pore over recipes for days, looking to tempt her guests with home produced goodies. There was always an air of anticipation and we kids would be primed to be on our very best behaviour. While we never knew quite who was coming to stay, we were under strict instructions that under no circumstances were we to cause embarrassment - to the guests or to the family. Even with the best preparation, sometimes Mum's worst nightmare would come true and manners would slip. My brother became a family legend after holding up an unfamiliar butter knife, in front of a distinguished English visitor and innocently asking ‘What's this?' Mum could have throttled him!
With several major sporting events poised to bring an influx of visitors to New Zealand, we've recently been encouraged to brush up on our cultural manners. In order that we don't offend international visitors, we are to remember that certain hand gestures might offend and even a smile might be misinterpreted. Now, I'm all for understanding the customs and etiquette of other cultures. Much miscommunication and conflict comes down to lack of awareness, understanding and appreciation of differences. But making too many blanket statements about cultural dos and don'ts can be a risky business, when not every person from the same culture behaves in exactly the same way.
While learning etiquette for special occasions is better than not learning it at all, the trouble with best manners is that, like best clothes, we take them off and put them back in the cupboard when the visitors have left.
Understanding the deep and largely unconscious influences of culture requires more than a set of manners that are just wheeled out for high days and holidays. That smacks of tokenism.
I find it somewhat ironic that as a nation of travellers, we seem to wait until we go overseas to learn about cultural differences, when there is such variety here already. Overseas visitors might come in greater numbers for sporting events, but their cultural communities are likely already living here in the Waikato. They may be living next door to you, perhaps in your workplace, certainly in your community.
The arrival of guests might be a spur to learn about ourselves and about others, but it can't just stop when they go home. Otherwise, like my brother and the butter knife, the mistakes will simply keep causing embarrassment. What helps us to connect with others of different cultural backgrounds is going beyond a set of facts to get to the heart of who we are. Look around your community and take time to get to know real people from different cultures so you won't have to resort to best-guess lists.