How to properly blow your nose

Sneezing’s cultural pitfalls. | Photo by John Wertschek

Sneezing’s cultural pitfalls. | Photo by John Wertschek

I had only lived in Vancouver for three months and yet, when I returned to Paris, I required a certain amount of time to readapt. I had hardly set foot outside, but quickly found myself immersed in the hustle and bustle of Parisian life and the bad humoured spirit that accompanies it. At first I was rather happy to rediscover this little world of grumpy people that are stressed by daily life. It had been three months since I had been able to whine or complain about some injustice, despite several unfruitful attempts while in Canada, and I was dying to be able to bitch once again.

Still, very soon, I felt out of sync with what I was seeing. What struck me immediately was the noise. While quite to the contrary, I had retained an element of the calmness I found in Vancouver despite the size of the city. In fact, I felt a bit schizophrenic seeking out tumult in Paris while at the same time being bothered by it. This temporary disorientation allowed me to be a spectator. Suddenly I made the connection. All of this was theatre, like a play by Molière.

I remember those plays well, having seen and studied them at school. An assortment of characters would get agitated, speak loudly and sometimes even come to fisticuffs. Thinking it over I told myself that the important thing is the noise. What matters is to make oneself heard, but by whom? I don’t know and that’s not the important thing. In Paris everything must be done with theatrics. My Canadian adventure showed me to what extent I was imbued with the Parisian culture of flamboyance and noise.

As I’ve said, my impression of Vancouver remains one of quietude and of a certain serenity in the relationships between its citizens. During my three months in Vancouver, I never noticed any shouting between Canadians (between Frenchmen doesn’t count). And it wasn’t for lack of looking. I did try to blend into the background but being a true-blue Parisian there were a few rude awakenings.

Those setbacks are illustrated for me by bus route #20, which links the Victoria street neighbourhood with downtown Vancouver. Riding this route, I quickly noticed that some of my mannerisms were not appreciated by Canadians, such as blowing my nose loudly. People may think that this sort of thing is purely anecdotal or even ridiculous when speaking of cultural differences. Still, this trivial action turns out to be one of prime importance.

Certainly blowing one’s nose is never very elegant and doesn’t produce a very agreeable noise. That’s why, according to the rules of decorum, I would have to do the “deed” in silence.

Still, I found I couldn’t accomplish this action without a certain amount of exaggeration and panache. With this exaggerated gesture, I express myself, occupy a certain space and announce my presence to others – even if the others in question, the riders on bus route #20, eye me with annoyance.

Reflecting on this experience, I tell myself that the episode of the handkerchief – more than any other experience in my life –
allowed me to understand how rich and varied the world is and how such a seemingly meaningless gesture can assume the most varied ramifications in terms of cultures. From now on when I consider diversity in the world I’ll avoid the grand theories. The handkerchief episode will be my very own example of cultural diversity.