Cultural differences come in all sizes. There are the big ones like languages and foods, and the less obvious such as expecting the waiter to bring your check versus having to ask for it.
Small, obscure cultural peculiarities can sometimes be hidden in plain view. Occupying an elevator, for example. In the States we get in and all face the front until the doors open on our floor. We don’t think about this practice and probably no one gave us lessons on proper elevator positioning. It’s just what we do.
And it’s what I’ve continued to do here in Ecuador for the past year and a half. Until last week, that is, when a friend I can’t recall asked for reasons I don’t remember, “Did you know you’re supposed to stand facing each other in elevators here?.”
No, actually I didn’t know that. So the next time I entered one I watched and, sure enough, everyone had their backs to the walls---except me. I quickly found an empty slot and joined the others and will always do so in the future.
This small revelation makes me wonder about three things:
1) How much are we missing (I say “we” because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one) as we walk around listening to the endless chatter between our ears and oblivious of our surroundings?
2) How many Ecuadorians have I unwittingly offended?
3) What else do I not know? Was this elevator etiquette part of a short list or the tip of an iceberg? I’m guessing the latter.
Yesterday I went to a Cuencano birthday party in Paute. There were 30-40 people there. I was the only gringo. The guest of honor was a beautiful 88 year old woman, seated in a corner with a few lady friends. My group was among the first to arrive, and as more folks showed up guess what happened?
People started taking chairs from the tables that had already been set up and began placing them around the wall. When there was no more space the line of chairs then formed a “J” and we were working on a “U” when the last attendees sat down. It was like we all were sitting in a super-sized elevator!
I have no idea where this “don’t have your back to anyone” notion originated. Was it for protection like the Mafia bosses who always sit facing the front of the restaurant so a hit man can’t shoot them in the back? Or is it simply a matter of politeness?
A couple of other observations from the party. All afternoon a gentleman wandered around serving drinks from a tray. This is very typical and charming. Often appetizers are served the same way. We would reserve this level of service for “fancy” events, usually opting for a bartender and a table loaded with “serve yourself” goodies. I’m certain Ecuadorians don’t consider tray service special. It’s just what they do.
When the bowls of food were delivered to our table the attractive young woman next to me offered the nearest one to me. I asked her to please go ahead and she said, “But you’re our special guest.” I replied, “We’re all guests here and the only thing special about me is the color of my eyes and skin. Where I come from it’s polite for the lady to be served first.”
She smiled and dished her plate. It’s comforting to know basic things like good manners are appropriate in any culture.