When I was a child, I remember being so uncomfortable in Afghan houses whenever we were invited for a meal. I had a strict list of do’s and don’t’s in my mind: never point your feet at someone, keep your legs folded under you, make sure not to eat with your left hand, stand up whenever someone walks in the room, and so on. So I would sit uncomfortably, legs aching under me, unable to understand the conversation, and awkwardly trying to eat with my right hand (I’m left-handed.) My understanding of Afghans was that they were extremely polite and formal. I was sure that if I broke any of these rules, I would deeply offend our hosts. I never felt free to relax and be comfortable. I never felt free to be myself.
As I entered my teenage years, I noticed a shift in the way I saw Afghans. It happened gradually as I noticed little things about them in small interactions. I saw how Afghans love to tease each other. When Afghan men held hands with me, I made it less awkward for myself by pulling or pushing them into the ditch. They took it with lots of laughter! When I was at a friend’s house, long legs aching, crunched under me unnaturally, they told me after the meal “Daraz bekashin!” (Stretch out! Put your feet up!). For me, this small command became a symbol of loosening up, relaxing, and simply enjoying the friends who I was with.
When we first enter a foreign culture, everything we notice is about how different people are from us. We carefully try to keep the rules and nothing is comfortable. As we slowly become more comfortable, we begin to notice that people are not as different from us as we first assumed. We begin to relax and be ourselves, and relationships move forward. Etiquette, while important, is no longer the main thing. We start to realize that the point of etiquette and cross-cultural communication is relationship — but when we are overly conscious of the rules, they hinder rather than help our relationships with others. When we finally relax, recline, and stretch out, we can begin to really enjoy the friendships that we have with others.
So next time your foreign (to you) friend invites you for a meal, go, keep the rules and be sensitive. But once the meal is done and the dishes are cleared — “Daraz bekashin!”