Nepali Times
Minding our manners


There is an anecdotal story of a Western salesman coming to Nepal and showing his wares to prospective buyers. Every time he asked whether they liked something, the Nepalis would shake their heads from side to side.

The salesman soon left very disappointed, never knowing that the Nepalis were completely happy with what they were seeing and their appreciative headshakes meant, "Yes, we like it!" Culture Shock Nepal is littered with such miscues whereby our mannerisms and manners (or lack thereof) serve to disorient, confound or offend outsiders...or vice versa.

Westerners are often alarmed by the habit of Nepalis sticking their tongues out like the goddess Kali destroying the demon Mahisasura, especially if they have been chewing pan. They need not be: it is a simple expression of shock intermingling with relief indicating that a big calamity was averted at the last minute.

In the old days when one sneezed, someone would exclaim "Narayan" to invoke the gods' blessings against a killer flu. It's still pretty common to see people blowing on their fingers religiously if they inadvertently touch their throat (or insisting, if they touch someone else's throat, that the person blow on the offending fingers), thinking this will prevent goitre. And the one I still haven't been able to figure out is the snapping of fingers every time someone yawns.

Foreigners riding cabs must notice the number of times the driver touches his forehead with his fingers as he passes wayside shrines or crosses streams and rivers. It is a flying salute to the gods, an acknowledgement of his holy presence en route. It is also a means of achieving quick oneness with divinity before Kathmandu's traffic trials usher in the devil's own sanguinary thoughts.

The slapstick humour of Nepalis can be sometimes annoying to outsiders. We laugh at everything. People even laugh if you nearly mow them down in the chaotic streets of Kathmandu (although if you do, passersby will set fire to your car these days). No, they are not taunting you, they are admitting guilt for having broken the rules, shame for having put oneself in such a tight spot in the first place.

Foreigners visiting our dignitaries in their offices are aghast at the ubiquitous Chinese bath towel with bold floral prints draped behind them on the chair. They are there possibly to prevent sweat from ruining the original upholstery bought with tax payers' money. Or is it because of the lack of a hook in the toilet?

My friend Mikhail Vinding, who was in the Danish Foreign Service at the time of King Birendra's state visit to Denmark, tells of how at a reception a waiter was about to hand over a glass of wine to His Majesty with his left hand. Vinding quickly intervened and took the glass in his own 'right' hand before serving the king. A faux pas was averted, although having been educated in the west we don't really know if Birendra would have really taken offence.

Rules of etiquette also change with time. At a restaurant you may still be rudely surprised by a loud belch emanating from a nearby table as a diner broadcasts his compliments to the chef. We love eating dal-bhat with our fingers, though like belching, you won't see (or hear) many urban Nepalis doing so publicly these days. I for one stick to spoons because I eat twice as much when I use my fingers.

But there is one breach of table manners that really gets me, and that's our loud slurping when we Nepalis take soup or tea, and our habit of eating with our mouths open. It's fine at home, but could we try not to export such Nepalipan to international conferences?

Dedicated to Fr James J Donnelly, S J (1929-2009) and his Brown Bomber.

1. titepaati
No Comments? I'm surprised! The writer above seems to imply that Nepali-pan somehow is inferior to the Western-pan. I disagree. There are times when people's manners get into your nerves- but it's not just Nepal. Nepalese are forgiving people. In that light, they might not think some of their perfectly 'ok' actions might be offensive to others. Slurping? Oh comon, nothing gives me more pleasure than slurping when having delicious tat-tatto amilo soup :) Other mannerisms like saying "Narayan" after sneezing is quite similar to "god bless" commonly said in the Western world. I don't think there's anything to feel bad or guilty or inferior to any of our mannerisms. Just don't physically offend anybody. Other than that, Europe or America, people there have their own lack of manners and offensive ways in lot of ways. So chill! Happy slurping!! :)

2. Bcreative
Slurping? well japanese do that while having SOBA.. Whats worng with it.. Its all about accepting the local thing and I am pretty sure Fr. Donnelly talked about that in your Godavari days.. Eating with our mouths open, I dont think its only a Nepali thing.. I have a fat arse american sitting next to me chewing his gum and showing all his decayed toothed that their care doesnt cover.. Maybe in your next article you can write, how we politely tell them that they are offensive.

3. janusi
FYI: snapping our fingers everytime we yawn we prevent flies and mosquitoes getting into our pie hole.

4. janusi
FYI: snapping our fingers everytime we yawn we prevent flies and mosquitoes getting into our pie hole.

5. Subra
Great reply janusi

6. STLgorkhe
If one is a visitor, one should follow the mannerisms of that place, and learn to be respectful. In taiwan, bleching after a good meal is a compliment. You would want to give a compliment to your taiwanese host wouldn't you? Different cultures have different trends. I am not sure why the writer is ridiculing Nepalese mannerisms. So what? Them foreigners should get used to it when they are in Nepal.

7. Satya Nepali
Loverly! ..wonderful to see writers still retaining their humor in these dark days where columnists continuously crow about the politics despite vowing not to (think Lal)! As for the finger snapping, didn't realize it was so quintessentially Nepali. In fact, always thought it was an imported mannerism from comic books or cartoons! And the towel, well, surely that must be due to the lack of paper towels or blow-dryers in Nepali toilets, requiring everyone to have their personal towels handy, and what better place to hang them so they remain dry? Saving the chair's got to be the accidental bonus! (esp if sarkari karmachari!). Lastly, thanks to Fr. Donnelly, the dear departed priest, who I presume must have been the writer's teacher, for training such a good-humored writer like him!

8. WellWisher
Well I am not that surprised or offended by what individual Nepali will do, with time we'll either develop good manners or will be forced to develop one. However, what surprises me the most is how our leaders present themselves in international conferences. I have seen Madhav Nepal, drinking tea and chowing down on biscuits as if there's no tomorrow on an international conference. His wife has followe suit with sports shoes to dinner reception held by chinese officials. There are just number of incidents that are out right embrassing, which I don't see changing anytime soon. Very dissapointing on how our country's image is represented by these officials.

9. nepaliPan
I for one learned to close my mouth while eating when I was 11 years old. I was visiting my grandpa far far away from Kathmandu and one day when we were eating lunch, he told me that people could hear me eating across the river (which was about 200 meters away from his house)> Ever since that day I learned to close my mouth. :-) I still enjoy slurping soup on a cold morning (when no one is around). As for burping, back in my primary school days, one of my friends who was filhy rich told me that he hated when people burped at dinner table ( we had "pirka" in our house). I thought that: since he was rich( his parents, actually) and he did not like it, then all rich people do not like it. And since rich people are generally considered the "more civilized ones " (at least that's what I thought when I was 12), I learned to hate burps at dinner table. Funny how one learns all these little things in life.

10. Sanjay
About bath towels in gvt offices... I was once told that this practice was started in British-India by the British officers there as they were constantly sweatting. The same practices was imitated here and has been going on for decades. Not really sure if this is true or not but sure sounds logical.

11. pwelad
Mr Rana, the writer, needs to get out of the colonist mentality .. it's now time for westerners to learn the ways of the east .. they're already doing our yoga, Ayurveda, vegetarianism, meditation and much more everyday. so why not, they can learn more ... get out of the mentality that westerners have it all figured out and we are the ones to learn it ... we have a lot more, may be even better things they can learn from's time to grow out of your inferiority complex.

12. SRP
surely why are those towels in every office? rest debatable... but good to be well mannered!

13. jange
The author seems uncomfortable about Nepali etiquette. He seems to have taken the occidental etiquette to be the global norm with which to compare the rest of the world. Reminds me of an article written by Manjushree Thapa where she was complaining that women in Kathmandu wore nightdresses when going out shopping. Apparently the dress known as a "maxi" in Kathmandu is used by US women as a night dress. It is a question of social acceptability and different societies have different notions as to what is socially acceptable.

14. Dobre Bhechher
Subodh "Raja" apparently made an attempt at humor but ended up being a subject of ridicule--thanks, in no small part, to himself. "Raja saheb" needs to forsake this stereotype that Nepali manners need to change because his Khaire sahibs may find them, well, weird. Kunda "jiu"-- I know sometimes even good papers go through the stress of not having access to good articles. But, come on, Dixit "jiu", you provide space to this kind of drivel? You take the larger piece of cake than Subodh "Raja".

15. bharat phuyal
whatever nepalipan we have, its great. Those western way are not always better, learn to appreciate what u have, don't think our way is inferior. These so called educated people of nepal now a days think white skin is more purer than brown or black skin. Everything damn white is good!!!! I wonder. Learn to appreciate ur culture, ur food, ur way of life, and thats what makes us different from other people and thats called our identity. Above Article writer is being over educated, seems like he has too many degrees from animal farm.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)