Saturday, September 27, 2008

Intercultural Communications.


With the F1 races beginning this weekend, all eyes are turning towards our city. With racers speeding up to 300 kph and herds of tourists streaming at an ever faster rate, a problem arise:

How do we attend to our visitors?

Problems arise when people from the different cultural norms come together and interact in their own comfortable ways. Sometimes, unintentional meaning may be conveyed through our actions that might result in unpleasantries for both parties.

My recent trip to the Night Safari highlighted the exact scenario. As it was a weekend, the Night Safari was packed with streams of people, trying to rush to all the attractions within the short opening hours of the park. This resulted in the typical mad rush to every attraction. The pushing and rushing are "almost" inevitable. Some aunties who refuse to be left at the end of the queue tried to push to the front of the queue with their continuous nudging and pushing have left many annoyed.

Since we have to queue for most of the more popular attractions, we were pretty annoyed by the sight of any queues. At the end of the night safari show (an hour queue before that), we were more or less relieved to find ourselves beating the crowd heading out of the auditorium. We headed to the tram station and was comforted by the sight of proper guides and stands that "guaranteed" a better formed queue compared to the ones outside the auditorium. Tragically, our relief was short lived.

Just when we were about to head into the guides, a group of Indian tourists crossed our path and cut straight into the queue.  Driven to near insanity, I firmed pat on one of the man's shoulder and told him firmly,

"Sir, you just cut my queue."

He turned back and looked at me. In that moment, I felt as if I had been swallowed up by his glare. He let my family passed, but not without throwing glares whenever our eyes met. I was highly perplexed by his actions and thought I had committed a racist act. I phoned my Indian friend and asked, but he couldn't give a definite answer.

Few days later, I realized my mistake over the net. I realized my pat on the shoulder was a taboo to them. According to one of the websites, Indians are very sensitive to touch, especially with strangers. It didn't help when I was touching him yet asserting a certain authority over him. It probably led to his discomfort and confrontational attitude later on.

The  complexity of our "multi-cultural-ness" will naturally increase, as Singapore continues to attract foreigners into the country. We have to be more aware of our little actions and words that might mean otherwise to someone with a different cultural background. Intercultural communication skills is more than just effective communication between cultures, it is also a manner of showing tact and respect. After all, on  the international arena, it isn't who we are, it's where we come from.


Lyon said... @ September 27, 2008 at 6:15 PM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lyon said... @ September 27, 2008 at 6:17 PM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hui Xuan said... @ September 27, 2008 at 11:32 PM

Hey Lyon,

you mentioned that it is a taboo to tap Chinese on the shoulders, especially at night. Is it true? It's so surprising to hear that because I wasn't aware of this at all. And I am a Chinese! Could you enlighten me on this? I am really curious. The only thing I know is that it is a taboo to tap a person's shoulder when they are gambling. (:

Lyon said... @ September 27, 2008 at 11:34 PM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lyon said... @ September 27, 2008 at 11:44 PM

hui xuan,

oh yes it is a real taboo for a Chinese to tap on someone's shoulders, especially at night and during the Hungry Ghost Festival!

According to the superstition, we people have 3 flames guarding us and warding off evil spirits all the time. The 3 flames are located one each on both of our shoulders and another one on our heads. Not only do they help in warding off the evil spirits, they also help to bring good fortune. According to your "ba zhi", the strength of your flames will vary as well. Those with weaker "ba zhi" and flames will be more pronged to encoutering "dirty" stuff.

That is why it is an absolutely no no to tap on one's shoulders during sensitive times such as Hungry Ghost Festival or late at night as that might actually "extinguish" the flames and thus make the person more vulnerable to the evil spirits (: The same logic applies to when one gambles. No flame, no luck, no money! And no worries, when the sun rises again, it rekindles flames which have been put out (: Wonders of solar power haha...

Brad Blackstone said... @ September 28, 2008 at 4:44 PM

Thanks, Weiren, for presenting this scenario. Like Lyon, I wonder if the Indian man's reaction was cultural or simply personal. Certainly the idea of jumping queue (or "cutting in line," in US terms) is a behavior that is offensive though practiced in many countries (more so in some places than in others).

As you say though, "sensitivity to touch" is something to be aware of.

Hui Xuan said... @ September 29, 2008 at 7:04 PM

Hi Lyon,

Thanks for telling me about this taboo. I do know about the 3 flames. But I wasn't aware that tapping people's shoulder will "extinguish" the flames. I will make sure I do not tap people's shoulder during the seventh month. (:

Lyon said... @ September 30, 2008 at 12:31 AM

I am not very sure whether it was your "firm pat" which triggered the "staring war". Maybe he was just unhappy with the fact that you actually stopped him in his act.

Just to sidetrack a little bit, many people in Singapore get away with the thinking that it is okay to "cut" someone's queue, it is acceptable to occupy the whole width of an escalator. This whole thing is particularly disturbing to me and I get easily irritated when I see people doing that. To a certain extent, this has become a Singapore culture, not belonging to any particular race. When Singaporeans go abroad, they exhibit the same behaviours as well. For the foreigners to understand and tolerate such acts, it would be a form of intercultural communication as well. But imagine them thinking "oh I can understand that, they're from Singapore", I don't think you'll feel good either.

Back to the topic, I will make sure that I do not touch an Indian if I do not know them well enough next time!

Sammy said... @ September 30, 2008 at 1:31 AM

HI Weiren,
I think it is true that in some cultures touching is very sensitive. Just like in Japan, even the eye contact could be considered as not appropriate act. I agreed with you that in this multi-cultures society, we really have to be more aware the way we communicate with others.

weiren said... @ October 7, 2008 at 2:21 AM

hi huixuan and lyon,

i have heard of similar taboo for chinese. may people do think that touching a chinese shoulder is really very unlucky and rude. maybe it has been lost for peers but more superstitious individuals do still practise that.