Americans have a culture which is unique in the world. As my wife and I travel it is usually quite easy to spot an American over a German, Englishman or Australian. The reason as to why we are as we are still eludes me; however as a general rule Americans are loud. We speak loud and we dress in a loud manner. However we are some of the friendliest, caring and touching people in the world. We easily chat up cashiers. We generously donate money to well deserving causes and we tip well to those who do a good job.
Americans are often accused of not trying to understand or adhere to other cultures. I have found that understanding other cultures is important if you wish to have a better experience abroad. In some cases that understanding keeps you out of trouble.
Singapore is a blend of Asian and British cultures, so in some respect you have more etiquette rules here than in other countries. In addition they have souvenirs in this country calling it a “Fine Country” because there is a fine associated with not adhering to what many consider normal courtesy. Eating or drinking at mass transportation stations or the vehicles themselves carries a $500 fine. Smoking within five meters of such stations; $1,000. Heck, you can even get in big trouble for carrying a fruit called durian on public systems because the smell permeates everywhere. Not flushing a toilet in a public area can significantly lighten your wallet. Spitting in public costs you. Chewing gum or touching another person in appropriately can get you anything from a fine to caning to jail time. Being naked in your house in any room except the bathroom can put you in hot water. And yes, these things are aggressively enforced without question and fines or punishment delivered swiftly. There is no wiggle room. Do not even think about drugs – that could easily cost you your life. And from what I can see, the rich are not exempt from these rules.
In one of the stores I saw a T-shirt with the character of Sue Sylvester from the TV show “Glee” on it. The quote was, “Anyone who has safely walked the streets of Singapore will tell you that caning works.”
But while in Singapore, and many other Asian countries, there are some things you can do to not just make your trip more enjoyable, but gain you respect. Following are a few of the more important social conventions that I have learned and observed.
No touching – Yes, Americans are touchers. Of course the French are even bigger touchers. It is part of our nature and we seem to do it almost automatically.
Don’t do it in Singapore. Recently an Irishman got nailed with the cane several times for touching a woman in what she took as an offensive manner. The newspaper this week did a matter-of-fact article about a man getting nine months in jail for touching a female police officer.
Singaporeans are not the touch people that Americans are. You see very little if any contact between people out in public. While Colombians press up against each other and shove each other to get on a mass transportation system, here in Singapore even a filled train system has space between people. Oh, and never touch a young child on the head, it is considered bad luck.
Shoes – At many apartments you will see a rack of shoes just outside of the door. My wife and I laugh commenting that if anyone left their shoes outside their apartment in Colombia that within the hour they would be stolen. Bottom line is take off your shoes before entering someone’s home or apartment especially if they have their shoes outside. Singaporeans are very polite people and tell you that you can leave your shoes on, but the best way to respect is to take them off anyway.
Give money with two hands – International business classes in university taught me that with the Chinese to always hand your business card using two hands and with your name so the receiver can read it. In Singapore I observed that most places do the same with money. Even when they use just one hand they touch the arm of the money giving hand with their other hand. When I make a conscience effort to hand cashiers money with two hands and receive change the same way smiles and friendliness come more often.
Eating with chopsticks – Once you master using those eating instruments there is still more to it, there is etiquette. To drop a chopstick on the floor is considered bad luck. Never stick your utensils into a bowl so they stand up like a candle. Pointing or gesturing with chopsticks is a no no. Stabbing your food is bad. Do not cross your chopsticks or lay them across your bowl. When finished set them side by side together on the rest or beside your bowl. Obvious, of course, is never use your personal ones in the community bowl.
Gifts – If invited to someone’s home be sure to bring the appropriate gift. Then present it to your host or hostess with two hands. Do not do like many Americans and just pass it over with one hand. By the same token if receiving money or gifts do it with both hands.
Tissue package on the table – It amazed me to see so many people purchasing small packages of tissues from street vendors. At first I thought it was just to help those less fortunate. The answer revealed itself at the busy food courts in the malls. Singaporeans place the package of tissue on the table to reserve that place while they obtain their food and drink. So do not sit at any table with tissues.
When traveling to another country I highly recommend that you read up on customs and etiquette before leaving home. Then once there watch and observe. Do not assume that everything is done as in The United States. Adhering to these suggestions can not only make your trip more enjoyable, but help make Americans look good. Then why not take some of the better etiquette rules back home with you?