It’s Not Rude if Everyone Does It
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Issue 5 (Winter 2012)
e barges in front of me. I stare at the back of his head while my Englishman’s brain struggles with this turn of events. Did you not see the queue, mate? No, of course you did, you were in it, just behind me – and now you’re in front of me, and apparently I don’t have a say in the matter. There I was, quietly standing in the queue for the ferry to Naxos, and you pushed in. You utter jackass.
In England, jumping a queue is of course a capital offense, along with mismatched cuff-links, failing to understand the rules of cricket and other unforgivable lapses in basic humanity. But I’m not in England, I’m in Greece. The gentleman in front of me doesn’t look English (no Englishman would wear a shirt like that), and when I tap him on the shoulder, he turns and gives me a blast of Greek way too fast to follow. Hell, I don’t even know the Greek word for “queue”. He stares at me for a second or two, then turns and shoulders his way past the next person in line – who, being Greek and not English, grabs him by the shirt-front and shouts in his face.
Alas, many otherwise acceptable customs or even gestures get bungled from one culture to the next. With that in mind, here are a few things you should never do in front of a Greek person.
Extend your hands towards them, palms flat, in the classic “No more for me, thank you” gesture. For a traditional-minded Greek this is the equivalent of being flipped the middle-finger. (Extend your feet at the same time, and it’s the deadliest insult you can think of).
The “OK” gesture, where you make a circle with your thumb and first finger, is deeply rude in Greece. Use a thumbs-up instead.
Getting straight to the point is frowned upon. It’s not the Greek way. And don’t make small-talk – make talk.
Don’t refer to the sculptures in the British Museum in London as the “Elgin Marbles.” In Greece, they’re called the “Parthenon Marbles,” and Lord Elgin of Scotland was a despicable thief. Get this wrong and you may get punched.
I’m not suggesting Greek people are rude, but to an English person they can “appear” rude, in a million unexpected ways. They can also seem demonstrative to the brink of violence. The first time I saw a fully animated conversation in Athens I thought it was a bar brawl. A similar thing happened to me in Italy – I sat at a kitchen table, cowering behind a bottle of the local gut-rot while my friend argued politics with her neighbor at a volume loud enough to make the windows rattle. This was, apparently, the standard volume for a discussion on politics in an Italian household. To my untrained ears it sounded like a scene from “A Few Good Men.”
When you leave your mother country, it’s easy to find things to take offense of – and this leads some travelers to make some sweeping statements. Italians are melodramatic. Greeks are pushy. English people are cold and distant and seem to spend half their lives queueing. The problem, however, is nothing to do with the people you meet and everything to do with you.
A necessary part of travel is learning new definitions of “normal behavior”, because different cultures have different ways of doing things. Not better or worse, but different. Adjusting your own sense of “normal” is one of the great challenges of travel – and when you stick a judgement on a cultural trait (“I didn’t like Greece – the people were rude”) you fail to rise to that challenge… plus, you open yourself up to being judged similarly. Sometimes, the acceptable way to behave is something you have to learn – and until then, it’s lost in translation.
So when Mr Queue-Jumper pushed in front of me, was I suffering cultural short-sightedness? Was it really my own fault?
No, the Greeks generally don’t barge their way into queues. He was just a jackass. Every country has them.