Let’s cut a long story very short: not long ago I was thrown out of a diner for asking where my hotdog was.
Banished. From a diner. Without an emulsified sausage. What made it worse was that while doing so, the lady who denied me that hotdog and banished me from her diner was rude. So rude, in fact, that the sense of injustice, rage and helplessness I felt afterwards lasted for days.
Because that’s what rudeness does. It burrows its way into your brain. It stays there, bothering you. Some scientists have even called rudeness a neurotoxin.
All this fascinated me. And so I began investigating rudeness in all its forms for what would end up as a book called I Can’t Believe You Just Said That. I looked at passive aggression. Bitchy tweets. Road rage. Trolls. Radical honesty. Posh people. Online commenters. People who are #justsaying or #onlybeinghonest or who think ‘banter’ is in any way an acceptable form of communication (which it is not).
It led me to some strange places, meeting some unusual people, and it taught me a lot about the way we treat each other every single day.
All because of a sausage.
And so I present to you a few tales to bear in mind on your holidays…
I think your city has a problem if there’s a whole syndrome named after it.
Paris Syndrome is a recognised psychological condition, and one which almost exclusively affects Japanese tourists. It sends them crazy. They get anxious and dizzy, they can start to hallucinate and they sweat excessively. It happens to up to twenty of them a year - largely women in their 30s on their first trip abroad - and why?
The Japanese love France and send a million tourists a year. What they expect is a moonlit Seine, incredible foods, cobbled streets populated by elegant women in Louboutin heels, and charming, attentive, model quality waiters pouring fine champagnes and occasionally playing a romantic violin.
What they get is someone shrugging angrily and swearing in French when they ask for the bill for their overpriced cheese toastie.
When a rude reality doesn’t match up to a romantic notion, they’re so shocked that some of them enter an “acute delusional state”. They’re put straight on planes and flown home accompanied by qualified nurses. The Japanese embassy has a 24-hour hotline for those suffering from this precise kind of rudeness and culture shock.
I recently told a French guy about this. He just shrugged.
Before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese government panicked about all the foreigners who’d be pouring into China. Queuing wasn’t a big thing in China. But spitting was.
Conscious of the culture clash, the Chinese government picked an employee named Wang Tao, and gave him a simple task: change absolutely everything in time for the Olympics.
He focused on spitting. 100,000 paper bags were immediately handed out to confused citizens for them to gob into.
“I spent six months trying to work out how to stop the spitting,” Tao told journalists. “I first wanted to wipe their spit up myself, but just how much could I wipe? So I decided the best way was to ask the spitting person to stop.”
From that point on, Wang Tao was regularly punched by complete strangers.
“I put my plans to work,” he told me through a translator with a dictionary, “confronting the offenders and exhorting them to clear away gobs of spit they expectorated with the paper tissues I handed them! For those who refused to comply, I would squat down and remove the gobs myself.”
It took its toll on poor Wang Tao. “Sometimes I feel lonely and upset when I get an unpleasant look as I persuade a person to wipe their phlegm off the street,” he said, with sadness in his eyes, and quite possibly phlegm on his fingers.
The Power of Mime
In the 1990s, Bogota was known as “the worst city in the world”. It was chaos. People flouted whatever social rules they had, just because there was no one telling them not to – particularly when it came to driving. People would park wherever they wanted, push into queues, drive on pavements and whatever else they felt like.
And then came a new mayor named Antanas Mockus, who had an unusual idea. He unleashed an army of mime artists onto the streets of Bogota.
These mime artists – dressed in black, their faces painted traditional white – would highlight bad driving or rule-breaking, pointing their big white gloves at drivers and making horrified faces, or encouraging whole streets of people to boo them. They’d run behind people who were crossing a road illegally, mimicking their movements and ridiculing them.
The notoriously corrupt traffic police were furious that rogue mimes were taking such liberties. So Mockus shut down the transit police and fired all 2000 of them – only rehiring 400 ‘good’ ones if they promised to retrain.
I would love to have heard their conversations with their partners that night.
Know Your Global Rudeness
In Brazil, never make the “okay” hand gesture, but do feel free to tell people how you’re feeling by giving them a lovely “thumbs up” one!
Do not, however, ever give a lovely “thumbs up” in the Middle East or Western Africa, because that’s essentially flipping everybody off, and they’ll break your nose.
Clear your plate if you’re in Spain, because that means “I enjoyed that lots!”. Don’t do it in the Philippines, unless you mean “I do not understand why you have failed to provide me with adequate sustenance and you are a terrible host”.
Show up for a dinner party on time in North America, but do not show up on time in South America. Be a few minutes late and bring some wine if you’re in Britain. If you’re in Germany, be absolutely punctual but do not bring wine, otherwise they’ll think you think your time is more important than theirs and you are saying: “I do not trust your opinion on wine.”
Don’t make too much eye contact in Mexico or they’ll think you’re belligerent. Don’t eat a sandwich in Brazil unless you’re holding it with a napkin. Don’t wander about whistling in Haiti. Never turn down a vodka in Moscow. Put one hand in your pocket only if you want Turks to think you’re arrogant. Use your left hand in India when greeting someone, eating or giving a gift only if you absolutely hate that person, because people tend to use that left hand for hygiene reasons.
And in Britain, when someone’s told you they’re hoping for a promotion, you might be tempted to cross your fingers for them to show you’re on their side. Do this in Vietnam, however, and they’ll ask you why you’ve gone mad and inexplicably made the gesture for a lady’s private dealings.
I Can’t Believe You Just Said That! - the truth about why people are so rude by Danny Wallace is out this week from Ebury Publishing.