Privacy vs Curiosity – who is the ill-mannered person?

Reading the 2015 edition of the Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, it states:

“Western concepts of privacy and solitude are little understood or valued in Sri Lanka, whose culture is focused on extended family groupings and closely knit village societies in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. Natural curiosity usually expresses itself in the form of endless repeated questions, most often, “Where are you going”, closely followed by “What is your country?” and “What is your name?”.

These may drive you slightly crazy if you’re spending a long time in Sri Lanka, but it’s important to stay polite and remember how potentially negative an impact any rudeness or impatience on our part will have on perceptions of foreigners, and on the treatment of those who follow in your wake. A smile (even through gritted teeth) and a short answer (“Just walking. England. John”.) should suffice. If you really can’t bear it any more, a little surreal humour usually helps relieve the tension (“To Australia, Mars, Lord Mountbatten.”) Without offending local sensibilities. Sri Lankans usually take great pleasure in being given first hand proof of the generally recognized fact that all foreigners are completely mad.”

p.51, The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka

Personally, I think that “Western” concepts of privacy and solitude are very well understood, but if you have been curious enough to go to a foreign country why be surprised when the foreigners are just as curious about you? Why go to a foreign country if you are not prepared to engage with the people there and if the people in the country you visit are curious, is it not worthwhile noting and embracing that? At least they ask you where you are from instead of making assumptions and making up stories. At least they are interested enough to ask you a question instead of ignoring you. And what a wonderful way to meet people and find out more about them and their country?

Our driver, Ranga, gave us unconscious lessons in grace, gentleness and humility (except, of course, when he gave particular tuk tuk drivers or bus drivers, after near mishaps, the well-earned epithet of buffaloes). He spoke to everyone he met and used an honorific, putha (son), ayah (older brother), mahathaya (sir) and he made sure to thank them and say goodbye.

There was a young boy standing between a bus which was trying a tricky manoeuvre, moving at an angle on mud with the boy sandwiched between it and our car. Ranga said to the boy, “Putha ehata yanda” (son, move over there) while pointing to the front of the car. We no longer say, “Son, go towards the front of the car”, or “young man, could you move to the front of the car?”. It would probably be, “Excuse me, could you move to the front of the car?” which is polite but does not have the same fatherly concern and lovingness that Ranga seems to embody as he says, “Putha, ehata yanda”. Mind you, I guess, tone of voice would also help.

People are very interested to know who you are and where you come from. Whether you are a foreigner or a local. Locals ask each other and tell each other where they are from, often without prompting. It’s a way of placing each other and finding out whether they know each other or whether they know someone who knows them.

In the West again, it is seen as rude and prying but here there’s a genuine interest in whether you are from Sri Lanka or overseas and they will let you know of a relative or friend from the area from which you hail.

At the ancient sites when people tried to sell you something if you explained very politely and with a smile that you had bought something similar at a different place, they would stop trying to sell and then turn the conversation to where you are from. Once the selling or not selling is out of the way, then comes the real work, getting to know you. I would suggest that instead of gritting your teeth and giving a silly answer, embrace the question, answer it and ask them a question in turn, you may be surprised at the information you turn up and the friends you might make.

We travelled through Sri Lanka from February 14, 2016 to March 6, 2016.

© Suganthi Singarayar

2 Comments

  1. Suganthi, what a wonderful piece of writing. If only we took the time to find out a little about other people. At the moment we are travelling through USA and I can honestly say not one person has stopped to find out where we are from. I’m sure our accents tell merchants and vendors that we are not from here, the only person who took a mild interest was the guy at boarder security!!!

    Like

    1. Subs, great hearing from you! That’s really interesting that no one has asked you where you are from. Even when we travelled in Canada people commented on our accents and asked us about Australia. Have a great trip. 🙂

      Like

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