Recently we were visiting with friends when the discussion turned to the topic of customary greetings around the world. I mentioned that greetings in Thailand are accompanied by a gesture known as the ‘wai’, which involves placing the palms together with fingertips at the nose, the forehead, or the chest while bowing the head. This gesture indicates respect for another person and also acknowledges seniority. The depth of the bow and the level of the fingertips represents the level of respect. Our friends were not impressed. As Canadians, they interpreted this to mean that Thais are merely formalizing status and hierarchy in their society.
First of all, this is a very simplistic perception of a long-standing tradition steeped in Buddhism and cultural history that is meant to show respect for age, wisdom, and spiritual leadership. As well, this rather myopic analysis fails to take into consideration our North American obsession with status and hierarchy.
Some of you will be asking yourselves what I could possibly mean by this. Allow me to explain.
As Canadians, it seems that we are very quick to pat ourselves on the back for being equitable in all things. But are we? What about our treatment of Indigenous peoples? Immigrants? There are long and deep discussions we could have about these issues. But not today. I will save this conversation for another time.
For now, I would like to address something that we often overlook—our Canadian obsession with celebrity, wealth, beauty, youth, education, perceived skills, and whatever else is seen as marking one person better than the next. When we returned from living in Asia for almost 15 years, I was struck by three negative aspects of Canadian culture almost immediately—the lack of respect shown for seniors and those in positions of leadership, the cult of celebrity, and the constant need to be ‘better than the other guy’.
We don’t ‘wai’ out of respect to those that have written great books, saved lives, or given wise counsel. We bow down to celebrities on reality TV shows or stand in awe of botoxed beauty and sexiest man alive awards. We are impressed with wealth and bestow great privileges on those that have it.
My husband and I lived for many years in countries where we might spend the day working with the residents of a slum and the evening dining with ambassadors or presidents. We had a broad spectrum of experiences, and they were all equally meaningful to us.
When we returned to Canada, we got involved in community events and joined groups based on our interests. What shocked us was the arbitrary hierarchy people had built within their interest groups and beyond. The best dancers in long-standing dance groups would turn up their noses at newbies, established book clubs rejected new members, long-term residents of a community weren’t interested in meeting ‘outsiders’. The ex-pat and local communities where we had been living overseas generally welcomed everyone with open arms. We weren’t used to this kind of exclusion and snobbery. Of course, we had many good Canadian experiences too. But the bad ones happened more often than we had anticipated.
As Canadians, we like to tell ourselves that we are open and friendly. Perhaps we have become blind to the inequities and hierarchies within our communities and society as a whole. Maybe it’s time we became more intolerant of these behaviours. Is there a polite Canadian way of saying “Who Do You Think You Are?