True story: a 20-year-old American backpacker was sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe in Istanbul, when his travelling companion leaned over and casually remarked, “If one of the locals sees you doing that, he’ll kill you.”
“What? What?” demanded the bewildered young man.
“Crossing your leg,” his friend explained. “Showing the bottom of your shoe is about the worst insult you can give to a Turk.”
The young American might have responded by saying, “Hey, I’m not hurting anyone, and I have the right to sit any way I want.” Fortunately, this fellow was wiser than that. He promptly planted both his feet on the ground.
It’s a pity that the ten Westerners arrested last week near Angkor Wat never had the opportunity to learn that lesson. If they had, they might not each be facing up to a year in a Cambodian prison.
As of this writing, the baffled travelers still can’t seem to comprehend what they did wrong. Dancing at a pool party, their gyrations got a little too suggestive for local standards of propriety, an error they compounded by allegedly posting photos of themselves online. For so doing, they now stand accused of violating the country’s laws against production of pornography.
Most Westerners would agree that the reaction by Cambodian authorities is over-the-top. That’s how the felt in 1994, when the Singapore court sentenced an American teenager to be caned after he was convicted of theft and vandalism.
But the fitness of the punishment is academic. Governments will do what they choose to do. The real issue is how much thought we give to how our behavior will appear in the eyes of others.
There is a reason why we say when in Rome, do as the Romans do. It’s not merely to avoid draconian penalties for what we consider minor offenses. It’s because good manners dictate that a guest shows respect for his host.
Are you on a business trip in Dubai? Don’t offer your hand to a member of the opposite sex. Visiting Buckingham Palace? A two-fingered peace sign might get you into a fist-fight. Taking a taxi in Tokyo? Opening or closing the door for yourself will upset your driver. On vacation in Jerusalem? Don’t go sleeveless through the chassidic neighborhoods of Geulah and Meah She’arim.
Your restraint has nothing to do with religion or culture. It has to do with deference, with being sensitive to making others comfortable in your presence, just as you would like them to make you comfortable in theirs.
In Biblical Hebrew, the word for “modesty” is tzenius, which translates more literally as prudence or restraint. Modesty does not require covering oneself with layers of fabric or making oneself unattractive. Indeed, sometimes such practices can be distinctly immodest by drawing undue attention.
The essence of modesty is to direct focus away from the exterior and redirect it toward the internal. Just as we don’t judge a book by its cover, we don’t want to judge another person solely by external appearance. Far more important is whether that external appearance is a reliable indicator of inner character and quality.
King Solomon says, Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who lacks discretion.
A gold ring does not make a pig beautiful. Rather, it degrades the ring while making the pig look ridiculous. Similarly, external comeliness is wasted on any person who does not comport herself – or himself – with the personal dignity that is the hallmark of authentic beauty.
In our self-absorbed world, people unthinkingly behave in public the same way they do in private. But before you act, isn’t it wise to consider whether those around you might respond to your behavior by removing themselves from your presence, or by removing you from theirs?
Then ask yourself this: if others find certain behaviors offensive in public, is it possible that those behaviors are not best practices in private, either?