I've been working on a theory lately ... in the "chatting with friends over drinks" sense, that is, not the "gathering data and painstakingly analyzing the evidence" way, of course; what fun would that be? (Like the late, great, and underestimated Alfred Adler, I believe that a psychologist's place is in the coffeeshop, not the laboratory.) My theory is that for every culture or subculture, there is a sort of Prime Directive that guides all notions of good manners, some key value from which all the specific rules and rituals flow. In Boston, for example, it seems that the highest mannerly value is to get out of someone's way. To the Boston mind, other people are best thought of as independent agents with their own goals and desires, and you show the highest respect for people by allowing them to pursue these goals unimpeded by you. Hence, we stick to ourselves and tend not to say hello, offer assistance, strike up small talk with strangers. This may strike people from other parts of the country as rude, but it's not rude to us.
This is why, during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Bostonians simply packed up and left town. "You want our city? Here you go! We'll just be down the Cape or over by Tanglewood or something. Drop us a line when you're done and we'll come back." Abandoning our visitors was our deeply sincere and perverse Bostonian way of welcoming them.
It took me eight years to figure that out about Boston, so I don't expect I've entirely cracked the nut of the Prime Directive for Australian manners in two visits. But I suspect it has something to do with equality, with treating other people first and foremost like people, regardless of what social role you encounter them in. Australia was birthed in degradation, cruelty, and pain during a time when the belief in the inherent equality, dignity, and worth of all people was just beginning to take root and spread. And the guards who ran the penal colonies were more vicious and corrupt than the convicts they oversaw.
This left the Australians with a deep suspicion of authority and social hierarchies, which plays out in all sorts of ways. For example, it is bad manners in Australia to sit in the back of a cab, if you are a solo passenger. You don't sit in the back like the driver is your servant--you sit up front, as though he or she were a friend giving you a ride to the airport.
And I think it might not be just a matter of treating people who work for you as equals as a show of noblesse oblige--they're willing to return the favor and see you as a person, too. A couple of days into our stay, I was languishing with a jet-lag-induced illness in the hotel room when the maid came to clean. I asked her if I could just have some clean towels, and when she handed them to me she asked quite seriously if I was all right to be alone. I really do believe if I'd said no, she'd have abandoned her cart and gotten me some help right away. Jet lag hits me hard, so I have had all too much practice in shooing away hotel maids with wan and greenish demeanor. Australia is the first place I ever felt as though the maid thought, "Oh dear, a sick person" rather than "Oh neat, a room I don't have to clean."
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Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.