What Are Good Manners?
I started writing this post as one commenting on how it seems that Azerbaijani mothers are incapable of recognizing that you might be busy. When Miri and I are watching a movie, host mom doesn’t seem to notice, and tries to start small talk and chatting with us. Or, when I sat down to read the other day, it took host mom and host grandma a while to figure out that I was reading, and that I wasn’t as interested in making small talk. They kept talking to me, asking me questions. I didn’t even notice until they started tapping my knee or shoulder to get my attention. Come on guys, I’m reading!
So that’s what the blog post started as…but it’s really more than that. This is about the concept of courtesy and politeness and how it changes from society to society. It is absolutely clear that the concept of politeness in Azerbaijan is different from that of America, and certainly different from that of Thailand. In America, we often use our please’s and thank you’s, greet people with a smile, and try to be mindful of what other’s are doing. In Thailand, it’s hard to find people who aren’t smiling, and they believe that smiling is a polite thing to do. The Thai language also has words that you put at the end of your sentences to express respect and politeness, and they make the language sound even prettier.
Those sorts of things aren’t really present here in Azerbaijan. The concept of politeness has some likenesses, but can also be vastly different. For instance, hardly ever do I hear people say zəhmət olmasa, the word for please. Often, things are just sort of requested, without any softening of the request. It’s common to just say “I want…” or “I don’t want…” when referring to food. To me, and many of the Americans around here, it sounds rather abrupt and rude. To them, it’s just how it is. When I used zəhmət olmasa the other day, I was told that I am cultured. We would also consider my reading situation an example of rudeness, right?
On the other hand, there are some really nice things that go into politeness here. For example, everyone you talk to will always ask how you are, how your situation is, if you are well, or how your family is. That can be pleasant. Sometimes it gets a little old, especially when such pleasantries happen to be the focus of the conversation, or this ritual happens to take up the first minute of your discussion. But, for the most part, I think that’s a nice gesture. Another piece is that whenever you go to someone’s home, you will unfailingly be offered food. This happens wherever I go, and it’s always hard to refuse, either because the food is really good, or you know that they are trying to be nice. Nobody likes to say no to really nice people. One more concrete example is when you bump someone’s feet. Anytime you bump someone, it’s almost second nature to grab the hand of the person you offended and apologize profusely. That’s nice, too; a nod towards personal space in a country where it’s not highly respected.
One last thing is that politeness generally appears mostly in private. Public lives here are much different than the other places I’ve lived in or traveled to. It is not common to see people smiling in public. Conversations on the street or in the park are generally short-lived, mostly filled with the greetings and a competition for who can ask “how are you?” the most, in how many different ways.