Every culture has its own standards of what is considered appropriate behavior; what is acceptable in one place can be an appalling lack of manners somewhere else. Even in the United States, which abandoned manners a generation or so ago, gentlemen are still expected to wear shirts while attending religious services.
Other countries have their own rules of etiquette: It is a cultural taboo in India to touch someone else’s head. In Egypt, don’t sit with your legs crossed — it is considered an insult to show the sole of your shoe. And if you’re a visitor to French Polynesia, don’t do what I did.
Tahiti is the most famous of the so-called Society Islands, which include Bora Bora, Moorea, and the lesser-known Raiatea — which is where we happened to be when I committed my faux pas. Our hosts, who live there part time, had been invited to attend a show featuring traditional Tahitian dancing. We were the only “outsiders” among the people who crowded into the town’s gymnasium for the event.
One of the local leaders who had befriended Jim (our host) presented us with leis and introduced the members of his group, including his wife. As you may know, it is a custom in these islands to cheek-kiss when greeting someone of the opposite sex. What you may not know — unfortunately, I didn’t — is that there is a very specific protocol observed during this ritual. Oh, I knew that a French kiss wasn’t appropriate even though this was French Polynesia, but beyond that I was pretty much clueless.
For the record, it goes like this: right cheek first, then left cheek — and no touching! Well, as the wife of the local big shot leaned in to kiss my right cheek, I mistakenly went for her left — she zigged, I zagged. The result was that I landed a kiss pretty squarely on her nose. To make matters worse, I violated the “no touching” rule when I tried to regain my balance by putting my hand on her shoulder. Approximately her shoulder. Let’s just say my hand inadvertently landed in the vicinity of her shoulder.
I don’t think the chief’s wife had ever had an acting lesson in her life, but she did a marvelous job of portraying shock. Meanwhile, with my limited French I couldn’t come up with enough words to express my embarrassment and beg her forgiveness. The fact that I wasn’t dragged out and thrown to the sharks is testament to the sweet nature of Raiatea’s inhabitants.
At the feast we had the following day, they showed there were no hard feelings by presenting my wife with a foot from the pig that had been roasted for the occasion. They said it was a big honor — kind of like getting the drumstick on Thanksgiving, I guess. Sally smiled and nodded and said, “merci beau coup,” realizing that there was no way she could toss it in the trash without offending them. She took a few bites, pretending to enjoy it. The islanders giggled delightedly as they watched her eat it… and it just now occurs to me that the pig-foot “honor” may have been revenge for my ham-handedness.