It took me two weeks to remember not to say thank you to the rickshaw driver. Yes. I did say ‘not to’…
Two weeks ago I set myself the task of doing as most Indians do and decided to ignore all words of thanks, all incidental apologies (‘sorry!’) and the endearing but useless please, except where necessary. That’s because I’m British. And the Brits are polite.
Those words, seemingly useless fluff of conversation, have followed my conditioned responses to all minor communications since I was five years old. And a recent article in The Guardian, a British newspaper, made what I have known all along uncomfortably clear: Indians, except for those who have had a ‘Convent education’, rarely say thank you.
Even so, why would I try to shut such a gesture of good manners out of my vocabulary? Just because it has no place in my present life?
Well, yes. But there’s more to it.
On the road to meditating in action – what I consider my primary spiritual work – my job is to bring awareness into what I do and say, and be free to decide moment to moment whether it is appropriate. Even decide is the wrong word. Speaking consciously might get closer to it.
For me, to thank the rickshaw wallah when I give him money is a typical English-person thing. We thank everyone at every exchange even when they should be thanking us – something my rickshaw wallahs rarely do.
Let’s use this as an exercise, I said to myself. Let’s see if I can remember not to automatically say thank you each time I open my purse, riffle through my banknotes and hand him his 20 rupees.
Today, I remembered!
This trivial little thing will seem strange to most people. But that’s because we are not alert to the extent to which we do all kinds of things without any awareness of why we do them or whether they have a real place in the events of the moment.
Most people wouldn’t give a hoot whether this is a conscious act or not. But I have work to do on myself, and the best way to start – I’ve been ‘starting’ for years – is to start small.
I can apply the same scrutiny of automatic gestures to how I make my afternoon tea or what happens when I order a coffee in my favourite café. Do I do it always the same way? Do I pivot on the spot in my kitchen to pull out the mug and the tea sieve and the baby tray I lay it all on in an identical sequence? The game is to change the sequence, to use a different piece of cutlery, or a different type of tea.
Some years ago a couple of friends of mine published a book called Living in Balance in which a few of these practical, seemingly bizarre day to day exercises are laid out with playful ways to accomplish them. One I recall was about standing on one leg while chopping vegetables, another, about brushing your teeth with your left hand – or doing any routine job with whichever is not your dominant hand.
And there are others not in the book, like walking backwards or moving down an empty street with your eyes closed – how many paces can you take before feeling compelled to open them?
I used to try this on my bicycle. It would have been early in the morning on a remote lane when there was clearly nothing ahead of me and masses of space on either side. There would have been no way I could bump into anything…
And yet the eyes could not stay shut beyond the count of eight (cycling) and ten (walking). They want to open. They are urged by some unconscious instinct to look whenever they can even if the brain knows there’s nothing to see.
I wonder how long you can manage this for?
When I came out of hospital a couple of years back, after having nearly kicked the bucket, I felt the urge to jump out of my comfort zone in the small ways I was capable of. Just getting through the long recovery process – elevated bed, Zimmer frame, long, slow assisted walks in the local park – I longed to see my daily world differently, as I had from the intensive care unit.
I found a new regular café, and walked, once I could walk again, as far as I could on fresh streets. I sat at different tables. I took visits to unfamiliar locations. I made friends with new people. And so on.
You don’t have to travel far to get a new angle on your day-to-day world.
So not saying thank-you is not a slight on my rickshaw-driving friends…it is an excuse to get out of my comfort zone and distance myself from the automatic British-speak.
Politeness, according to one (English) friend, is the most important lubrication we have for social harmony, and should not be abandoned, even in India. And yet the Indians I come across are not being deliberately rude when they don’t use these good-mannered niceties. It is simply not part of their normal cultural practice. No one taught them the difference between plain speaking, no frills, and the roundabout ways we British express ourselves.
I had a computer doctor once who I regularly employed to come and fix my tech problems, a man I was very friendly with. When he would arrive after a long scooter drive through the dirty city, he quite naturally wanted a glass of water, which I, quite naturally, was happy to give him. However, as he sat down at my desk to tend to the job at hand, he would say to me, without looking behind him: Bring me a glass of water.
There was no please, no could you or would you or may I have… It was, essentially, an order: Bring me a glass of water!
This tiny phrase set me off balance. A part of me was shocked, uncomfortable, outraged, even, that he should speak to me like that. Was he deliberately trying to humiliate me? Or was it because I was a woman, and in India women largely exist to serve men? Probably the latter, but mainly his cultural norms: direct emotion-free communication with a zilch understanding of what good manners were.
Now when I told the story to that same English friend, he was quick to condemn him: called him a ‘boor’, an ‘uneducated dodo’…
Yet this simple man, who was able to solve all my tech problems, was just doing his thing.
It was my own conditioning of please-sorry-thank-you that was out of kilter. It was so deep, that although I had a good relationship with this man, I took umbrage.
For the record, because as much as possible my work is to witness my own reaction rather than dump any wound onto people by calling them on stuff, I of course presented him with the loveliest glass in my cabinet, full of sparkling filtered water, served on a nifty little tray, as any well-mannered subservient housewife should!
In some far-off historical context, Brit-speak created a protective please-sorry-thank-you shell around those who use it – probably originally cultivated during Britain’s colonial rampage through other people’s countries in order to keep the natives away. In other words: be polite, and they won’t attack you. (And thus, with gentility, the British conquered the world!)
In turn, despite their indoctrinating Christian convent schools run by missionaries and nuns, and their shameless looting, they did manage to deliver to the globally far-flung ‘natives’ a few precious items: the opportunity-opening English language; some of those useful Biblical ten commandments; and those three magic words of politesse.