Last month, we began a series exploring the initial impressions of Delhiites as they land in the US for the very first time.
That series was derailed a bit due to a sudden and wonderful addition to our family; fortunately, life has finally settled down enough for us to pick up where we left off.
As foreigners adjusting to life in a megacity, Jenny and I originally created this site to record the challenges we had adjusting to simple things about life in Delhi. You know, like power outlets with on-off switches or the fact that we had to monitor the water level in our rooftop tank in order to ensure a steady supply of showers.
So when we interviewed Tiya and Divya, two students who recently moved from Dehli to New York, we asked them to describe some of the things that initially confused them about their life in the New York. And Tiya had a very interesting response about Americans’ penchant for pointless pleasantries.
“The way people talk here. They ask how you’re doing without really caring about how you’re doing. And some are excessively polite and/or diplomatic, so, many times I find it difficult to discern what the person’s real intention is.”
She’s not alone. On our last post, many comments were posted about the same subject, exploring what Americans would consider politeness and non-Americans apparently consider insincerity.
Lakshmi said: “When I set foot at the Dulles airport in DC, the immigration/customs guy asked me how I was doing — and I was taken aback. Am I supposed to know this guy? Does this guy know my cousin? And so, is that how he knows that I would be here at the airport today? Did my cousin ask him to take care of me until he could pick me up at the airport? If so why didn’t my cousin tell me? I looked like a deer facing headlights.”
DyslexicHippo said: “I forced myself to quickly learn to say, ‘You are welcome’ in response to ‘Thank you’s.’ People rarely verbalized their thankfulness in India, but when they did you knew for sure that they meant it, and that those were not empty words. Here it was rude not to say “thank you”, but it meant nothing much at all when said.”
Sandhya said: “The way people smile at you in trains or streets… I would be halfway forming a smile in response but by that time they are already looking somewhere else… and I look like an idiot smiling at no one!!!”
Priyanka said: “I found it strange too that everyone from the cashier to the cab driver will ask you how you are; however, soon enough I realised that it wasn’t from the heart, so why ask???”
Judging from those comments, it would suggest that people in Delhi only present such queries when they genuinely care about the answer.
But I remember many times when friends and co-workers would begin a conversation with me by asking, “Have you eaten?”
I always took this as an Indian twist on the standard banal pleasantry, a conversation starter for which the actual state of my stomach was irrelevant.
But given what we’ve learned from Sandhya, Lakshmi , DsylexicHippo, and Tiya, should I have taken those questions more seriously? If I had said that I hadn’t eaten, would I have immediately been taken down to the canteen and present a bowl of dal?