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Hands off our etiquette, Miss Manners!


CULTURE SHOCK: Winfrey in Jaipur earlier this year. The chat show host caused a minor kerfuffle with her observation about Indians eating with their hands

Different societies have different standards of propriety and different metrics to assess hygiene. So who is clean and who is dirty?

Some 26 billion rolls of toilet paper, worth about $2. 4 billion, are sold in the United States each year. It is estimated that Americans use an average of 23. 6 rolls per head (per bottom would be more accurate) a year. Some other estimates put the American use of what is broadly called tissue paper at 50 lbs per year, more than the average of any other country, including other EuropHygeine, ean nations. Tissues can include toilet paper (basically used to maintain personal hygiene after defecation) and other accessories such as paper napkins and facial tissues.

So essentially you can use tissues to wipe your face or wipe your bottom. Toilet paper, unlike other tissues, is designed to decompose in septic tanks. But it is not unusual for Americans to use toilet paper to blow their noses. This idea would be revolting to many Indians. Use the same paper for the face and fundament (well, even if not at the same time)? Chee chee! Americans, on the other hand, may consider the Indians' use of their hands for personal hygiene quite disgusting, even if it is explained to them that the "unclean" left hand is not to be used for eating.

So who is clean and who is dirty? We can kick the can down the road and avoid asking awkward questions. Or we could ask Oprah Winfrey, who has caused a minor kerfuffle with her observation that "some Indian people eat with their hands still", which, understood in the strictly grammatical sense, would be quite difficult and involve a lot of head movement. Such minor quibbles aside, you may wonder what Americans, or Oprah's forbears for that matter, did before the mid-19 th century, which is when toilet paper came to America (the Chinese were the pioneers of the bum wad). Used goose feathers perhaps? Besides, how does Oprah eat her burgers and hot dogs? With a fork and knife?

Different societies use different metrics to assess hygiene and etiquette. The American practice of leaving the derriere unwashed - and merely wiped - after taking a dump, to put it infelicitously, is repulsive in many cultures. So is the idea of wallowing in a bathtub, in one's own sweat and grime. In fact, Americans are said to use 50 per cent more toilet paper than Europeans because unlike the latter, they don't use bidets to wash their bottom. On the flip side, many foreigners who come to India are put off by what some have called "morning noises" - rituals involving gargling, gurgling, blowing the nose etc - politely known in Indian lexicon as "ablutions".

It's not that Americans don't eat with their hands. Put a plate of chicken wings in front of an American and the hand - and not knife and fork - will shoot out. Americans use both hands for eating. At the end of which, they usually just wipe the hands with a napkin, seldom washing them (until much later). Indians on the other hand have to wash their hands immediately after every meal. Just paper napkins won't do. In fact, many Indian cultures, especially in the south, use fingers and palm to eat;that's the only way they can mash the food.

In fact, before India became less Brahminical and cutlery and crockery entered its dining spaces, Etiquette 101 to westerners was to use only the right hand for eating;the left hand was meant for unclean acts such as wiping the backside, blowing nose, and taking off shoes. Some Brahminical cultures distinguish between "left handed dalits" (those who work with human and animal waste) and "right handed dalits" (like potters and blacksmiths who are considered to be "higher" in the hierarchy). In most western food systems now, it is mandatory for workers to use gloves when making fast food such as sandwiches and burritos, a practice that is just coming to India. Indians think nothing of touching the food they feed to others.

Manners and etiquette also vary across the world. Many Indians are rude in western eyes because they do not vocalise or articulate gratitude. But they express it in different forms. Americans also complain that Asian and African men are illmannered in not holding the door open for others, especially women, who follow. But there is a theory - not entirely credible - about why in some societies, men do not hold the door open for women to step through first. That would be considered thoughtless because men are supposed to lead and see there is no danger for women and children who follow.

Dr Venugopal Reddiar, an Iowa physician who has studied body language, has reflected on cultural differences when it comes to gestures. Crossing ones arms may signal deference in India, but in some societies it indicates defiance. Eye contact is a sign of respect and confidence in America, but elsewhere it suggests confrontation.

Hygiene and manners evolve with changing times, mores, and values - even in the commercial sense. There is the famous example Napoleon hosting a banquet for the Thai king at which the visitors were served on aluminium utensils while others, including Napoleon himself, had to "make do" with gold and silver. That's because aluminium was at that time the most expensive and exclusive metal, a sign of great wealth and prestige. Following the invention of electrolysis and the Hall-Heroult process, the cost of aluminium dropped and it became commonplace.

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