Monday, 18 April 2011

Minding my manners (or 'Protocol & Pitfalls')

Etiquette is not my strong suit - just ask my mother. Many's the time she was left shaking her head in despair when her happy-go-lucky but klutzy first-born bowled into social situations without a thought for the proper protocol.

It's not that I don't consider common courtesy or good manners important (I do, and I think - or hope - my son is testament to that), it's just that I've never had much patience for the 'niceties' of which order people must be seated around a dinner table, the right fork to use for the salmon mousse, who should speak or wait to be spoken to, or where exactly you're supposed to put your linen napkin (tucked into neckline where it might serve some purpose or uselessly laid across the lap?).

You can tie yourself in knots trying to work out the intricacies of correct protocol even when you spend all your days, from cradle to grave, in the same place.

Imagine then, if you will, the joys of adapting to the 'new manners' of an adopted country. I was bought up in the classic middle class English tradition of 'please' and 'thank you', removing elbows from the table, offering your seat on the bus to senior citizens, and never discussing politics, religion or money (or weight gain, for that matter).

So it was a bit of a culture shock twenty-odd years ago when I arrived in the noisy, riotous, exuberant country that is now my home, and started adjusting to Greek etiquette.

You might think that some things are universal. And indeed, getting up to let a doddery old dear or a eight-month old pregnant lady sit down on the train is acceptable good manners in both countries (just be prepared for the possiblity of the fierce offended glare of a pugnaciously proud Greek grandad who considers your implication of his frailty as an insult).

But it's not quite as clear-cut as you may expect. For years, my father-in-law and I have been having a running battle over 'please' and 'thank you'. He considers it to be a formality between relative strangers, that lacks sincerity and has no place between family members. I say I can't undo the conditioning that was drummed into to me during my Home Counties childhood - I say thanks to my mum if she makes me cup of tea, after all. And, anyway, if a tendency to say 'please' and 'thank you' too much is the worse thing he can say about his daughter-in-law then he's a lucky man indeed!

As for taboo subjects - well, there are none. Just so long as you are prepared for noisy and rumbuctuous debate on the politics of the day, how much (or little) you make, or (my own personal favourite) how fat you've got.

Then, there's kissing. This is a positive minefield. Where I grew up, we kissed relatively few people - just immediate family members, the closest of close friends... and of course, boyfriends. For immediate family it was always a dry but affectionate peck on the lips. And, naturally, men NEVER kissed one another in greeting - at most there would be an awkward, manly handshake.

In Greece, you can't move for kisses. You see an old work mate on the street - kiss, kiss. Your hubby comes across an old buddy from the army - mwah, mwah. Mums, dads, brothers, sisters, cousins - even old bosses or teachers (depending on how you did with them) - they all come into for the kissing treatment. But it's a very specific kiss - grasp the hand, pull the other person close, and deliver two dry and noisy pecks, one on either cheek. NEVER on the lips. Never EVER! Oh no.

To outside eyes, Greeks may seem far more relaxed and less bound by conventions of etiquette than the so-called buttoned-down English. But the truth is very different - as I have learned from bitter experience.

For a start, you have the whole matter of two different forms of address - the informal and friendly "sou" (you), and the polite "sas" which is supposed to be used to show respect and deference to the person you're speaking to. Not to mention those who object to being addressed in the formal manner because they think it lacks warmth ("How am I supposed to know for flip's sake?")

There are very specific standard greetings that you are supposed to deliver on certain occasions - and heaven forbid that you should fail to say them both to the person directly involved AND their immediate family. It's not enough to ring up your mate Takis and wish him "Chronia Polla" (Many Happy Returns) on his birthday or Name Day (don't worry about forgetting to send a card - Greeks generally don't DO cards). But if you want to avoid being placed of the black list of his kindly Yiayia (granny) you need to make sure you also deliver the same wishes to her, as well as Takis' mother, father, brother and pet dog too.

There are specific special greetings for all life's major events. "Kai sta dika sas" (Here's to yours) to singletons at weddings. "Na zisete" (May you live, implying happily ever after) to the bride and groom. "Kai tou chronou" (here's to the next one, next year) for birthdays and anniversaries.

It's easy enough to learn the standard responses.
Unfortunately, it's equally easy to get them mixed up.

Believe me, you do NOT want to find yourself in the position of greeting a bride and groom you barely now with a wish of "Kai tou chronou" (here's to the next one). Or worse, trying to console the grieving relatives at a funeral with a heartfelt "Kai sta dika sas" (Here's to yours).

Fortunately, I LOOK foreign. It would be hard to confuse me with a native, and most Greeks are good-natured enough. They know that you are trying and their laughter at your Size 7s firmly shoved in your mouth is anything but malicious.

So, don't worry about etiquette. Those who want to take offence will always find a reason to get the hump no matter what. And the well-meaning ones will forgive you the most horrendous faux pas.

After all, my dear old Mum probably scored more Brownie Points with my Greek family when she enthusiastically (but mistakenly) shouted out "Kalimera!" (Good morning) at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve (she should have said "Kali chronia!" - Happy New Year), than she could have in a century of correct napkin placement.


  1. When our daughter came back from Japan for a few weeks, she said she couldn't stop bowing. It's catching, culture!

  2. Hmmm, it seems to me that "Good Morning" would be technically correct, but I get the point.

    Charming blog.....and I think you are wonderful for keeping all of those greetings straight.

    By the way......I envy you.....I love Greece.

  3. Just popped over from Free Ranged would that I could pretend to be a foreigner in my own country esp with my MIL!