In the past few months I’ve been humbled by the knowledge that, as a foreigner, I will inevitably offend at least one person, probably a sweet elderly woman, by accidentally breaching some sociocultural boundary I was unaware of.
Today I want to share with you a particular cultural challenge I have faced here, and together we can laugh at me.
In Guinea, it’s impolite to give or receive something using your left hand. As it was explained to me, this is because one’s left hand is one’s solution for personal business pertaining to the absence of toilet paper. It would be unladylike to describe this matter further.
For reasons both literal and figurative: engaging someone with your left hand is rude. You would use your right hand to pay/pass/give/take/shake/write/touch food and so on. Observing this right-hand-priority thing is difficult for me, because I am left-handed. My dominant arm is now a source of perpetual insults.
I can assure you, I try. I walk into town with my left hand buried in my pocket, it isn’t safe to leave it unrestrained. I shop around the stalls at the market, totally in control. Determined. Do not hand anyone anything without checking with your brain first.
But something catches my eye; I’m distracted by gorgeous fabric with green and gold diamond shapes that would make a nice wrap skirt. I wonder how much this –
It isn’t until I’m paying the woman behind the stall that I see what I’m doing. We both stare at my extended left hand that is offering the francs to her. BAH! How did you get out? I juggle the things I’m holding to switch the money to my right hand and offer it to her again. She takes it this time, but the expression on her face says that I am too late for social redemption. It feels as if I’m always losing a game. Is there to be no residual benefit from a childhood spent playing Simon Says? Surely this is the real world application. Simon Says don’t use your left hand in Guinea EVER.
I mutter my (grammatically incorrect) apology to the saleswoman and wave goodbye. She stares at me blankly, she must not speak French. Er, wait – maybe she is staring because I’m waving goodbye with my left hand. Shoot, does waving fall under the rude left hand rule, too? Good grief. Someone take me back to the ship.
I’ve lived six months of scenes like this, you would think I would be able to remember, yet there I go again, inadvertently offending locals right and left. Or more precisely: left and left. It’s no wonder that I now know how to apologize in five languages.
When we travel, we will inevitably disrupt accepted social rules like hillbillies at tea time. There is no avoiding it, traveling makes ill-mannered foreigners of us all, at least until we adjust to the new rules. I suppose we must try to forgive others accordingly.
And pack extra toilet paper.