Recently, three colleagues of mine—a Pakistani man, a Tanzanian woman and an American woman—were in my office, and the four of us were discussing a work issue. My American colleague was explaining something to our male colleague who, because he would get frustrated by his inability to answer quickly in English, would respond instead in the local Pakistani language of Urdu and have our Tanzanian colleague translate, because she is also fluent in Urdu. As I said, the four of us were discussing a work issue, but it should be noted that I was largely ignoring the entire conversation because I was rapt with the task of clobbering a fly that was bothering me.
I don’t know what it is about flies. Mosquitoes find me boring, and fleas refuse to nibble. I don’t think I’ve ever had a tick bite; perhaps a chigger bite or two, but I am honey to a fly. A fly will travel great distances to buzz around my head and drive me out of my mind. They do it at great personal risk, because I am always intent on truncating their already limited life span.
So, as the conversation ensued, I was paying attention to my buzzing tormentor, ready for an opportunity to strike with the magazine that was rolled up in my hand. At a particularly opportune time in the conversation, the pesky fly chose to land on the edge of my desk, immediately in front of my Pakistani colleague. I reared back and slammed the rolled magazine down on the desk, at which point my friend jumped up from his chair and grabbed both of his earlobes.
There was a moment when the three of us women took in this scene. We each knew I was swatting a fly—actually, I missed—and I was momentarily miffed that my colleague would ever have thought I was aiming at him but, as we looked at him standing and holding his earlobes, we had no choice but to burst into laughter. He joined in but still tightly holding his earlobes.
After we caught our breath and wiped the tears; we had to know: Why was he holding his earlobes?
Ah, it is cultural. Because he was concentrating on the conversation and the translation that was taking place, he wasn’t paying attention to my hunt for the fly. When I slammed the rolled-up magazine down on the desk, his immediate reaction was to think he had somehow said something wrong or insulting and that I was showing my displeasure. I understood why, to get out of the way of my magazine, should it strike again, he had jumped up, but the earlobes? Turns out it is a demonstration of apology in the Sindhi culture. My friend didn’t know what he was apologizing for but his reaction was instinctive and, given the circumstances, very funny.
We have now spent several days adapting this newly learned skill to our toolkit. We’ve decided a mild insult warrants pulling on one lobe, à la Carol Burnett, and that a more serious offense should have both lobes wagging in supplication. My Pakistani friend, on the other hand, has a newfound dislike of flies. Cross-cultural assimilation at its best!