Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Office etiquette-- but whose?

The Oxford English Academy of Nanjing where I work is a class act, a proprietary school affiliated with Oxford University in England and committed to Chinese access to English. The office bustles with activity as we prepare to do an in-service for sixty elementary school teachers the week after next. Staff morale is high even though the weather is oppressively hot and there's much to do. We take an occasional break as in the photo below in which Sir Barry Jowett, the school's director, poses with the pink hat I bought to keep off the sun.

As with every excellent operation, there is a highly competent and professional second in command-- in this case a young woman who goes by the English name "Bonnie." Barry, consults with her on most details of the operation, including the linguistic and cultural interface. But at times we have conflict due to the difference in culture ,as occurred recently when during an afternoon ice cream break, Bonnie innocently seated herself on Barry's desk.

Barry was horrified. "Bonnie," he spluttered, "You may not sit on my desk. Get down at once!"

I gather that in China the act of sitting on a boss's desk is not socially marked as seductive. Bonnie, who is highly professional, had no idea why Barry was making such a fuss. "No need to get down. I am comfortable."

Barry had turned bright red. "Bonnie, sitting on my desk is not, ladylike, and I cannot permit it. In the West, I would be criticized if I allowed it."

Bonnie's sense of etiquette is different. "Barry, this is China. No one will think anything."

Barry insisted he could nevertheless not permit it, and, shaking her head over her boss's unreasonableness, Bonnie climbed down.

This was cultural clash. Both people were abiding by the rules of their repective cultures, and found the other person's reactions incomprehensible. In such instances, I normally think the member of the guest culture-- in this case the Westerner-- should defer to the culture of the host. That's a good guideline, but in this case it didn't work. There is no way a proper middle aged male executive shoulld allow his cute and competent office assistant to sit on his desk. You simply can't step out of your culture all the time.

Communicationis not simply verbal. It is symbolic and gestural. We seldom notice the symbolic and gestural norms of our culture until we encounter another. Remember the Book of Ruth-- Boaz formalizes his commitment to Ruth by handing her kinsman his sandal. That sounds weird to us. Perhaps Barry's consternation over her choice of seating sounded equally strange to Bonnie.


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