A question of protocol

The week I started working at the offices of the company that had hired me in New York, I was pretty sure everybody hated me.

My first few moments in the office were pretty odd. In a way, I already knew most of the people who worked there – I had been working for them remotely for more than two years, and now I was finally seeing everybody in person. So I was, in all honesty, expecting us to be quite familiar with each other in no time.

Things didn’t work out that well, though. Of course, the first day was pretty nice; being introduced to people, putting faces – and voices – to names, setting my computer up, filling forms out. The usual stuff. I got an office of my own and was pretty happy with it.

The second day, things started ticking me off. I tried greeting people – mostly shaking their hands – and I was met with awkward glances and confused gestures. People didn’t say “hi” anymore; nor “bye”, for that matter. Odd.

Perhaps most unsettling, save for rare occasions, people wouldn’t invite me to get lunch. I’d see large groups of people – people from my department, and people I’ve been talking to for years – going out to get their food while I was left by myself. In all honesty, that’s the kind of situation that used to scare me a bit: being in a different place, using a different language, getting used to different habits, having different food, and now having to find a place to eat on my own, afraid of committing a faux pas that would make me look like a fool. We tend to be afraid of the stupidest things, I guess. Anyway, it was not fun. No wonder I just went and got a sandwich at Subway so many times after I started living here: I’d just order the same thing, answer the questions the same way, and be done with it. I still felt helpless at work, but eating at places I knew gave me one less thing to worry about.

This story is not about discovering whether people actually hated me, though. It’s about the need for social translation in your day-to-day relations, something that is usually overlooked when we’re talking about cultures that are not quite that far apart, but still just different enough. It’s all about the protocol, but the protocol is never clear; you’re supposed to know about it in advance.

You see, I was indeed quite sure people hated me for some reason I didn’t know. I thought that maybe I had acted in a way that people didn’t really like and as such they were pissed with me. So a couple of weeks after I started working there, I brought the topic on one of my many conversations with my local friend Don. I really wanted to understand what I had done wrong and I figured asking him would help.

Don – whom was also not raised in New York – was pretty quick to explain to me that, first of all, people don’t shake hands every day around here. They only do so while meeting someone for the first time, or if they haven’t seen each other in a while. In the same vein, it’s not like they say hi or goodbye to anyone every time they see someone they know. This means my attempts to shake hands every day were probably a bit too much to the local culture to handle.

And, perhaps most striking of an explanation, he theorized that people weren’t inviting me to get lunch simply because I didn’t invite them to get lunch before. He didn’t put it this way, but what I understood was that, since I hadn’t invited them, they didn’t feel at liberty of doing the same with me. My Brazilian ways – expecting people to call me to invite me to lunch from the very start, and shaking hands all the time – turned out to be pretty alien to most of the people in the office.

The next day, at the office, I invited some of the other developers to lunch. And again the following day. And the following.

I like to believe it worked. Now we always go get lunch together, and I’m rarely the one who goes around inviting people to lunch.

And perhaps this small story and my questioning is the reason why, every time I see Don, we either shake hands or hug. As much I’m getting used to the city’s own habits, with Don’s help with social translation when necessary, it seems he’s also getting used to mine.

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