Indian newcomers to Britain, whether immigrants or tourists, have a habit of rubbing the locals up the wrong way. By the end of my first week here, a friend who was also new to the country had managed to annoy an impressive number of people. The exchanges went like this:
My Friend (MF) stopping Harried Londoner (HL): "Where is Oxford Street?"
HL, irritated: "Please."
MF, confused: "Eh?"
HL, losing patience: "PLEASE."
A tense silence would ensue, then:
Me, whispering from behind: "He wants you to say please."
MF, taken aback: "Oh! . . . okaaayyy . . . yes, yes . . . Please?"
It happened everywhere we went. Whether it was forgetting to say thank you after being served at the bar or walking silently past someone holding a door open, we caused raised eyebrows, pointed pleases and demands for thank yous.
The unfortunate truth is that politeness as it is understood in the west is entirely alien to Indians; indeed, on the rare occasions that Indians want to say these things they are often obliged to do it in English. Gujarati doesn't have a word for please, Marathi has a whole sentence for thank you, and no Indian language has a word for "you're welcome".
For us, politeness equals respect and hospitality. My parents will offer food, drink, board and lodging to even the most casual visitor to our house, and there is a Sanskrit saying that equates the guest with God. For my Indian friends, the ultimate faux pas would be smoking or swearing in front of my parents, rather than failing to say thank you.
Indians also have no qualms asking strangers the most intimate questions. My grandmother, resting while on a shopping trip in the UK, would sit near the entrance to a shop and trap people into conversations. "How old you are?" she would begin, in broken English, advancing swiftly to: "Why you are not married? You have boyfriend? How you can live with man if you are not married?" We would eventually rescue the victim, remembering to apologise as we did so.
I've heard tales from visitors to India who have found themselves trapped in long inquisitions by strangers. "I'd be talking to my friend and they'd interrupt us and start asking questions," says my Israeli friend Michal. "Indians just don't have a concept of rudeness versus politeness, or a sense of private space."
Will this last? In such a crowded country privacy and formality are never going to be easy, but change may be on its way. For young Indians eager to be good global citizens these things are becoming important, and foreign-educated twentysomethings like me now ask our bewildered parents for "space" and chastise hapless grandmothers for forgetting to acknowledge the efforts of the domestic help. So thank you for the lessons.