Those of you who are planning to travel abroad this summer may be interested in the etiquette of appearing in other lands in that traditional role known internationally as the Dumb Foreigner.
It is not easy to be a dumb foreigner, although many seem to fall into certain aspects of it quite naturally. Sojourning in a place where one does not know much of the language, customs or etiquette can be even more of a trial for the visitor than for the natives, who at least have the recreation of laughing themselves silly at the spectacle.
There was a time when it was considered that how one behaved away from home didn't quite matter. Young gentlemen were, in fact, sent abroad for a year or two specifically for the purpose of making fools of themselves--or rather, as that was considered inevitable, of performing their most pronounced idiocies where it didn't count. This was known as the Grand Tour, for the purpose of Sowing One's Oats, and enabled gentlemen to enjoy unblemished reputations for respectability and common sense in their hometowns.
Unfortunately, global communications have improved a great deal. We have also become aware of the extraordinary fact that while poor behavior may not be reported back home, it affects the citizens of the countries in which it is practiced--who might actually have feelings, too.
Miss Manners has always advised American travelers to maintain their basic good American manners abroad, rather than to mimic complicated foreign customs. The possibility of unintentional hideous transgressions by those who do not know the subtleties of another culture is enormous. But learning the customs of others is one of the purposes and pleasures of travel, so there is little excuse for a foreigner so dumb as to be unaware of when his native manners violate the decencies of the host country. (Not removing one's shoes in places where this is mandatory is an example.)
But there is no excuse at all for not knowing how to say "Do you speak English?" in a country where you do not speak the language and expect to converse in yours; or for memorizing the formula of how to convert the local currency into dollars.
Nearly all other deficiencies on the part of the dumb foreigner can be covered by mastering two basic facial expressions: the Foolish Smile, and the Fixed Smile.
The Foolish Smile is the classic expression of the puppy dog, but with the tongue inside. When you have been told a price but cannot figure out what any of those odd coins and funny bills represent; when you ask directions and can't understand the answer; when you are hungry but can't read the menu--apply a foolish smile. The pleading look of good-natured stupidity will appeal to a decent person's reluctance to chastise the hopeless.
The Fixed Smile is for more sophisticated social occasions. When a conversation is taking place about you that you don't quite get, or someone is taking a great deal of trouble to explain something to which you haven't a clue, the fixed smile, with wide eyes and close, slightly turned up lips, like the archaic Greek smile, covers you in case the words require a response of sympathy or of amusement, and relieves the speaker of the burden of making himself truly intelligible.
For a sensitive Dumb Foreigner, one of the pleasures of returning home is re-assuming normal facial activity with a thoroughly rested face.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. My grand-nephew, who does not otherwise favor me with his attention except on Christmas, has sent me an announcement of his graduation from high school. It is not even an invitation, although I live 400 miles away from him and can no longer travel easily. Am I right in suspecting that this is a more or less blatant appeal for a gift?
A. How clever you are. Your nephew is one of countless teen-agers, all over the country, who have devoted years to studying, straining their eyes and risking their health staying up nights, in the hopes of cudgeling their great-aunts out of a fountain pen, tie or dictionary at the end of a mere few years. If you do send him a present, it may encourange him to repeat this audacity by attending college, from which he can expect another graduation. And do not think he will stop at that. Perhaps he will marry, in the hopes of extracting another tribute from you, and breed children, at the rate of one fuzzy sleeper or bootie set each. Unchecked greed will never stop on its own. He will encourage his very children to have children.
Meanness doesn't seem to know any boundaries, either. Is there anyone out there whose first reaction, upon opening the announcement of a graduation, wedding or birth, is "Why, how nice!" rather than "Do we have to get them something?"
No, you do not have to get him anything. It might have been nice had you felt like doing so, but it is not obligatory. It would also be nice if you simply wrote him a letter expressing congratulations on an event he was proud of and wanted to announce to you, but you don't have to do that either. You may, if you prefer, sit by yourself and muse bitterly on the lengths people will go to in order to make other people pay tribute to them.