To Blow or to Sniff — Culture Shock for an Expat
Six years ago, I moved from India to London. One of the first things I observed was how hard and how often people blew their noses in public. Wherever I went, I noticed someone taking out a tissue from their pocket, blowing their nose loudly and putting the tissue back in their pocket. And, since London is much quieter than most Indian cities, I found this loud bhush-bhush noise quite startling at first.
It was particularly baffling because, all the books I read on British culture told me that Brits are shy, and they avoid doing anything that attracts public attention.
The Typical Expat Reaction
Blowing nose in public was probably the first culture shock I experienced in London, and I reacted how you would expect most expats to react — I got irritated and kept comparing the situation to things back home.
In India, we were taught, early on to be very shy of any sort of sound from our body, except maybe belching after a hearty meal. Blowing your nose in public or at the office, would be a definite no-no for most of us. We would much rather sniff, till we reach a toilet or somewhere more private, before we blow our nose. Obviously, there are some exceptions, but in general, most Indians find blowing one's nose in front of others very inconsiderate.
We Got to Talking
I was aware of this difference in etiquette between the two countries. However, I did not know how to ask my British colleagues why they blew their nose, instead of sniffing, until one day, during my session on cross-cultural awareness, one of the delegates asked me this question: “Why do Indians continuously sniff, when they can easily blow their nose. It makes me feel so sick.”
This was the perfect opportunity to explore the topic of blowing your nose vs. sniffing, and I wasn’t going to miss it. I told him how sick I felt, when someone blew their nose, standing right next to me on a crowded train and how most Indians, like me, considered blowing your nose in public unhygienic.
In turn, he shared his perspective, and informed me about the awareness campaigns, like “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” run by organizations like the NHS, urging people in the UK to blow their nose, rather than sniff it all in, to get rid of their cold faster.
And then it made sense. Talking about a simple action like blowing or sniffing our nose, and how we found the other’s action annoying, helped us to learn about our differences, and also understand the reasons behind them.
As expats, we don’t always get such opportunities to talk about our differences. However, if ignored, these differences can quickly pile up and cause unnecessary anxiety and stress.
A Lesson Learnt
Even for the most seasoned expat, it is hard to prepare for all the cultural differences that await them. In every place you visit, you will find something strange. It is best to observe with an open mind, discuss with other expats and locals, and understand why they are different.
Now, when I blow my nose in front of my friends in India, they give me such nasty stares that I feel they will catch and bin me, if I don’t stop immediately.
I guess, when in Rome, it is better to do as the Romans do, as long as you are not losing your identity.