Travelling North

Article – When in  Rome

When in Rome …..

We are a long way off living in a global world, and the clash of cultures seems likely to be with us for a long time.

Consultants and business schools promote a variety of courses for business travellers to learn all about the culture of a country that they are about to visit, on the grounds that it is important to ensure they behave appropriately. That appears to be reasonable advice, but leaves open the questions as to what does ‘behave appropriately’ mean?  If you read the flyers from these various organisations, it seems that appropriate behaviour is copying what the locals do.  Is that what we should do?  I was brought up in a Christian environment, and so the statement about what do when in another country that made sense to me was the admonishment to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”.  When I was young, I took that to mean that you must obey the law, but your morals – your personal code of ethical behaviour – well, that was your business.

We all accept, well no, let me rephrase that, we all should accept that when you enter another country you are entering another jurisdiction, and that the act of making entry means that as a result we fall under the law and regulations of that jurisdiction.  I still find it hard to understand why some people are quite clear about the differences between state laws (and are willing to exploit those differences, whether making use of different laws about fireworks, alcohol, or anything else), and yet those same people are amazed, annoyed or even unwilling to accept that the laws of another country can apply to them when visiting.  Surely, they say, as an American we are entitled to the protections of US law!  Simply stated, you are not.  When you enter a country there is a clear understanding, even if a statement to that effect is seldom handed out as an accompaniment to your entry, that you are now subject to the laws of that land.

There is, of course, the possibility that the laws in that country can be wrongly applied.  After all, this happens at home, which is why we have law courts, judges and juries to sort out mistakes, misapplications and ambiguities.  In the same way, we can seek to appeal against unfair or illegal actions in relation to the law in another country.  However, it is a good idea to bear in mind another very clear understanding, which is that the legal processes in another country may not be similar to, or as good as, those to which we accustomed ‘at home’: that is a risk to be considered before you decide to go to another country.  Irrespective of the existence of good processes to deal with the application of the law, their existence doesn’t exempt us from the obligation to follow the laws that apply where we happen to land:  when you go travelling you should remember that old rule of caveat emptor, and make sure you know what you are about to confront.  In most countries, ignorance of the law is neither an excuse for breaking the law nor an exemption from its application.

Of course, it isn’t quite as easy as that.

The first tricky issue has to do with the distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’.  In many countries, what you do ‘in private’ is seen as your business, and as long as it remains in private, you are exempted from the application of the laws that apply to what you are doing. Exempted?  Perhaps not.  This seems to be a case of the blind eye of the law: what is not seen is not considered.  However, we know that is a form of hypocrisy.  It is choosing to ignore what we would prefer not to know, because the implications and the consequences are too uncomfortable.  A clear example of this can be seen in the case of homosexuals, who up until recently could only live the lives they wanted in the privacy of their own homes, often breaking a number of laws in doing so.  However this was possible as long as everyone was complicit in ignoring what they knew (or guessed) what was the case, (and in some states this still remains the situation).  However, it was living under a threat: you could be unmasked at any time.

There are many countries that prefer to ignore what cannot be seen for as long as it is ‘hidden’.  A Westerner can live in Saudi Arabia and can go home and drink alcohol (if he or she can obtain some!), and although that this prohibited by law there seems to be a convention that this is ‘ignored’ if it takes place in a foreigner’s compound.  However, if a party spills outside or becomes noisy and someone objects, then it is now evident that the law has been broken and drinkers will be punished.  Is that hypocrisy?  Or is it a double standard, and one which, incidentally, allows Moslems as well as Westerners to drink alcohol in private?

Is there a private world within the public domain that is solely and entirely ours?  Clearly not.  We can think of many instances where ‘private acts’ still incur legal retribution:  if a man beats his wife ‘in the privacy of their home’ it is still domestic abuse, and it still makes him liable before the law.  Or if a person is busy making bombs in their kitchen.  Or if she is plotting a terrorist activity.  Even that stout defender of liberty, John Stuart Mill, acknowledged that the limit to liberty had to be if your actions could or would do harm to others.  If that means the public vs. private distinction is a weak one, so it pushes us closer to confirming my suggestion that what we are allowed to do in private is a studied form of hypocrisy, and that we are still breaking the law, just getting away with it through convention and common agreement.

If that points to one tricky issue, another confronts us when we leave the so-called privacy of our homes, and go back outside.  I am in Rome, and want to visit one of the great churches there.  My wife is handed a headscarf as she is about to enter, to cover her hair.  This isn’t a matter of law:  it is something that the officers of the church do.  What this offer of a headscarf highlights is a second complication about where to draw the lines over what you do overseas.  Rather than being about conforming to formal rules and regulations, this is about conventions.  What to wear in church is a matter of custom, but a custom that everyone is expected to follow:  indeed, many churches will ban a person from entering if not properly dressed.  ‘Properly dressed’?  If I go back to Saudi Arabia, my wife sees women all around her covered from head to toe, wearing an abaya.  However, most of the time she can wear a dress (as long as it reaches her ankles) and has long sleeves.  Clearly not properly dressed in Arab eyes, but strangely in that case her mode of dress is accepted (although the extent to which that is acceptable seems to be less clear in recent times, so that in cities like Riyadh Western women are increasingly pressured to wear an abaya also).

There is another issue here, of course.  I have a friend in Bahrain.  When we meet in his office, he is usually wearing a suit.  If we go out to dinner, he may be wearing a suit, or he may be wearing his thawb and keffiyah.  I find it unremarkable, a shift similar to my wearing a sweater, a casual jacket or a suit at different times of the day, and, to a large extent, a matter of personal preference (although I realise there are some ‘rules’ about dress that I will follow, whether they are to do with expensive restaurants, clubs, or the conventions of a formal social event).  Despite those times when convention suggests I must conform, by and large as a white Anglo Saxon male I am privileged, and I have the freedom to be as I want to be just about anywhere:  that is not just a matter of how I dress, but of the language I use and even my behaviour to others.

WASPs are privileged, and it is hard to see the world through other peoples’ eyes.  Suppose I am with my wife in Saudi Arabia, and she is told that the former freedom granted to foreigners has been removed, and she must dress as the locals do when she leaves the apartment.  That is a much more powerful imposition than asking that you wear a jacket or sweater.  Perhaps it is not the law that demands how she should dress, but custom and everyday conventions.  Can she choose to ignore those expectations?  I have no idea how a woman should navigate the challenges of travelling into countries with very different cultures (that is the limitation of being a privileged male), but I do recognize the enormity of the challenges.  In many countries, the status of women is severely circumscribed.

I remember Lee Kwan Yew talking to an audience in Melbourne many years ago, on receiving an honorary degree.  He said a lot of nice things about Australia, the university, and about his hosts.  Then he wandered on to saying a lot of nice things about what he had done in creating modern Singapore.  Following on from this, he made a very interesting observation.  He asked the audience why they tried to be ‘Singaporean’ when they went to his country. “You are not Asian, and you should not try to be Asian.  Be what you are, be Australian.”  His remarks were partly designed to comment on those Australian politicians who were busily reminding us about our geography and about those neighbouring Asian countries with whom we traded and exchanged.  As he saw it, we were more British than Asian.  But it was more than that.  It was also about authenticity, about being true to yourself.

I have often reflected on those comments.  When I meet someone from Japan or Germany, say, I expect them to speak with strongly accented English, or even not able to use my language.  I understand when a Japanese businessman bows, his hand already stretching forward holding a business card that he is following what is polite in Japan, and at the same time I know he realizes that this is his way, and not mine.  When I see a Chinese visitor spit into the street, or even into a trash can, I know it is his way.  I do not like it, but I accept it is his practice (and at the same time, in class I try to explain to visiting Chinese groups that this can upset the locals, and be seen as unhygienic).  As for brusque German visitors, well that is their way, too.  In the same way, when I travel overseas, I work hard to be polite and considerate, but I don’t try to mimic the locals.

When Samuel Huntington wrote on ‘The Clash of Civilisations?’ he pointed out the critical edge where one civilisation abuts another, a place where real clashes and even wars can break out.  At the personal level, we confront those clashes when we travel.  We aspire to be good citizens of the world, and good representatives of our country abroad.  We want to be polite, considerate, thoughtful and respectful.  We find ourselves rubbing up against uncomfortable edges all the time.  Sometimes we breeze past these rough edges unseeing.  Sometimes we manage them deftly, fitting in and conceding.  Sometimes we bungle, offending without awareness of our clumsy actions.  Of one thing we can be quite sure.  We are a long way off living in a global world, and the clash of cultures seems likely to be with us for a long time.

Should you take a course on ‘how to behave’ when you travel overseas?  I think you should learn about other cultures, expectations and customs overseas.  I don’t think you should do this to pretend to be someone you’re not: rather you should be aware of how to be yourself, and to be sensitive to differences just as we are sensitive to differences when people from overseas visit us.  If I smile at the behaviour of some of my German friends, so in the same way my Japanese friends smile at my eccentricities.  However, that is all.  Remember Lee Kwan Yew.  Those same Japanese friends are astonished and mildly offended at ham-fisted attempts by Caucasian to be ‘Japanese’.   When in Rome?  When I am in Rome I still prefer to render unto Caesar only the things that are Caesar’s, but I might be wrong.

More earlier personal reflections?

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