I recently received an email from a person in Australia asking about a specific unpleasant incident she’d had with a Muslim couple.

What was the protocol?

Ever since I wrote an article on my website about Muslim Etiquette and Shaking Hands I often receive queries about people using the article in dealing with Muslim newcomers, immigrants, stuff like that.


This is the response I wrote her:

Sorry to hear about your negative experience with that Muslim woman and her husband.

[She had been fingering some fabric in a charity shop and had tried to turn to the Muslim lady next to her to remark on how pretty it was and had seen her husband nearby glaring at her.]

I have no idea why he responded the way he did. Maybe he was just scared and being protective.

When people have been hurt a lot, they tend to expect it. They can be very prickly and defensive. So maybe he expected there would be an altercation or something.

I have no idea. I wasn’t there. I’m only speculating.

Don’t assume that he was being controlling. That may be you projecting your own experiences of controlling men, on him. It isn’t actually possible for him to control you in any way. As a white woman you have way more power and privilege than he does. But that might not be how  you experienced it.

We have no idea of what they’ve been through. Maybe he had good reason to be afraid. Whatever the case, it’s important to rise above.

I know personally that when I travel and interact with people I don’t know, in a strange environment, I make extra effort to speak a lot and be friendly, but that’s just me. And I’m fortunate because I have a very Canadian accent. I’ve seen people visibly relax when they hear it coming out of my mouth.

I’m also fortunate because with time I’ve come to terms with my differences and I’m more comfortable in my own skin and that comes across too.

But perhaps other people are not as confident.

In answer to your question, yes, it is correct for you to speak in passing to any female you encounter in passing in a shop. No worries. Nothing wrong with it. Touching her on the arm is not a huge faux pas either but some people are a little sensitive to that, so it might be better not to.

One thing I learned when I was touring India, is that different cultures have different ways of handling casual encounters.

Western societies, including Australia, tend to be kind of ‘bold’ if you’ll excuse me. (It’s okay with me. I’m used to it and rather like this boldness and directness!) But other cultures find that boldness kind of threatening and aggressive.

I was in a shop in Agra, near the Taj Mahal, buying some souvenirs for my grandchildren. Like you I was fingering some fabric and haggling with the shopkeeper, but I didn’t look at him directly. Many Muslim societies don’t look one another directly in the eye. They think it’s kind of aggressive. Me, I was just examining the material and talking about how much I wanted to pay for it. At the end of the negotiation, the shopkeeper handed me a small glass of tea and asked which part of India I came from.

I was shocked! My Hindi is not very good. I’d assumed he’d know I was from the west and jack up the prices accordingly. Since I’d gotten the price I wanted I told him honestly that I was from ‘outside’. He was surprised and I realized it was because of my mannerisms of not looking directly at him.

Spoke to another Indian who goes back often and they can always tell she’s from outside. And yup, she looks them right in the eye!

So there’s that.

Also remember that people who’ve been colonized will look at white skin as ‘authoritative’. It’s weird, I know, but it’s there. Who knows what sort of dealings they’ve had with other white people that made them so scared of you.

Perhaps what you should have done is not look her in the eye and not look her husband in the eye. But honestly, there’s no harm done, and in the end you don’t owe anyone anything but civility, which you obviously displayed.

Coming from different cultures we will often rub up against each other the wrong way. It’s a good idea to develop a really thick skin and not take anything too personally.

But last night, when I was thinking more about it, I thought wait a minute. I think as we become more and more open to each others’ cultures, we just have to account for the fact that we will meet rude people.

And that is a right that people of color have. That is, they have the right to be jerks.

It’s kind of like that twitter conversation that was out there telling women to smile. Yeah, but what if women don’t feel like smiling??? And then there was that hashtag trending about women smiling.

If the guy glared at her, so what?

It’s not like he did anything physical. And maybe he and his wife, just weren’t in the mood to speak to her. Or maybe they were tired, or whatever.

Nobody owes anyone any sort of cheery disposition. We have no idea what other people have been through.

And basically we need to not take anything personally.

It sure is nice when people are friendly, but if they’re not, shrug it off, and go on your way.

I know, easier said than done at times. But still…

I have a personal motto of trying not to take things personally. It helps keep me humble.

I often tell myself, “Everything isn’t always about you. Get over yourself.”