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Importance of being impolite

Americans tend to hold the policy of 'Mind your own business' in a high regard, writes Melissa Bell.

india Updated: Apr 30, 2006 14:15 IST

I caught my co-worker staring at me across the cubicle. I was fidgeting with a broken keyboard when I felt her eyes boring into me. I had only been in Delhi a week and it was only the second time we met and I panicked.

I must be committing some major faux pas to illicit that stare. What unknown code was I breaking? And how long before she called security and had me booted out of the building?

She must have read the sheer terror on my face because she casually commented, "I'm trying to form an opinion about your bag."

My bag? I thought. The innocuous black purse in my lap?

"Does it have pockets?"

"No", I said.

"Oh, well, I guess I like it then."

She smiled and turned back to her computer and that was that -- in her mind, at least. I was left staring at her, speechless.

You see, people that I've worked with in the past, especially people I've met only hours before, generally are not as comfortable telling me their honest opinions -- good or otherwise. In the US people assume that to be polite, one must stay out of everyone else's business (purses, included).

But here, people act like it would be rude not get in my business.

A week earlier, another colleague gently chided me for my sloppy western ware. "You should get a salwar kamezee for people to take you seriously", she said. Then, a friend came to collect me for dinner, took one look at me and cried, "Are you sick? You look awful!"

I'm going to admit it: Sometimes, the truth hurts.

We like to say, "Honesty is the best policy". But Americans don't often adhere to that philosophy. They tend hold the philosophy of "Mind your own business" in a higher regard.

But sometimes, my business does need to be minded. I didn’t know what to wear for work. I was coming down with the infamous Delhi-Belly. And I was too embarrassed to ask for help.

Luckily, my friends here don’t wait to be asked. And I, for one, am glad.

The intricate rules of traffic, the varied meanings of the head nod, and just exactly what is in a masala dosa confuse me enough as it is.

First Published: Apr 30, 2006 14:15 IST