Well Versed in Etiquette*

There are certain rules – etiquette, if you will – that people tend to follow when they interact. Those rules are usually unwritten, but they’re there. In fact, they’re important enough that if a person doesn’t follow them, it’s noticed and can be awkward at the least. As an example, if several people want to do the same thing at the same time (like buying a ticket), everyone gets a turn, and the rule is to wait until it’s your turn. To ‘cut in’ and take an earlier turn is considered very rude. Individual places and cultures have their own rules, too. For instance, in New Zealand, you thank the bus driver when you get off the bus. Where I live (and where I grew up, too), if you visit someone else’s home, you bring something with you (a bottle of wine, a box of sweets, something home-baked, etc.).

Those rules of etiquette play important roles in our lives; they tell us what to expect from ourselves and each other, and they make it a little easier to live on a crowded planet. They’re important in crime fiction, too. They add to the atmosphere, and they can help give a sense of time and place.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France to investigate the murder of Paul Renault. At one point, Poirot needs to go to Paris to follow a lead. Here’s how he takes his leave of Hastings:

‘Au revoir! You permit that I embrace you? Ah, no, I forget that it is not the English custom. Une poignée de main, alors.’ 

Poirot isn’t English, but he understands the etiquette of when and with whom to shake hands, and that hugs are not seen in the same way in all cultures.

In some cultures, there are other unwritten rules about physical contact. Many (not all) of them come from religious traditions and beliefs. For example, Zoë Ferraris’ novels feature Nayir ash-Sharqi who is a desert guide, and Katya Hijazi, who works in the medical examiner’s office. They live in Saudi Arabia, which has a strong Islamic tradition. A part of that tradition, for religious reasons, is that men and women who are not related do not touch. In fact, in the strictest form of this tradition, they don’t even speak. That custom – of avoiding physical contact between the genders – is woven into Ferraris’ stories, and is simply etiquette, even among those who are not deeply observant. In fact, if I may add a personal note, I work with several teachers whose students come from Muslim homes, and who’ve had to learn to politely greet those students’ parents without shaking hands. It takes a little effort to learn that, but it makes for much better rapport.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels know that these two protagonists are members of the Navajo Tribal (now Nation) Police, and members of the Navajo Nation. While Chee follows the Navajo tradition more than Leaphorn does, both men know that it’s the Navajo custom to avoid touching someone who isn’t a close friend or a family member. This, too, comes from religious tradition. Etiquette in that culture dictates that you greet someone you don’t know courteously, but without physical contact. Chee and Leaphorn also know that, in that culture, you don’t knock on someone’s door to be invited in. You announce your presence from outside, usually by calling out or using a car horn. Then, when the occupant is ready to have you in, that person comes to the door or steps outside and welcomes you.

Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four, which takes place in Japan, tells the story of Yoshinobu Mikami, a former police inspector who now works for the police in their Media Relations division. Fourteen years before the events in the story, he was involved in the investigation of the disappearance and murder of Shoko Amamiya. The case was never solved, and it remains a black mark on the police department, and a source of shame. Then, when the police commissioner suddenly decides to pay a visit to the bereaved family, the case comes up again. Mikami’s looking into the matter when he spots something unusual – an anomaly. This leads him to re-visit the case, and it opens a lot of old wounds (to say nothing of the danger in which it puts him). At one point, Mikami himself visits Shoko’s father. As part of the etiquette he follows, he asks (and gets) permission to pay ritual respect to Shoko. That privilege is not granted to everyone. In fact, Amimaya doesn’t want to have the commissioner in his home, and won’t grant him permission to pay respects. That turns out to play an important role in the novel.

There are also several unwritten rules of etiquette when someone visits. In many cultures, a visitor is offered refreshment. In fact, in several crime novels, the police make visits where they’re not offered anything, and that’s a very clear sign that they’re unwelcome and unwanted. In general, though, when crime-fictional police visit witnesses or even suspects, they’re offered tea, coffee, and sometimes something stronger. A few of Helene Tursten’s novels featuring Irene Huss include scenes where she makes such visits and is offered hospitality. It’s also there in Tove Alsterdal’s We Know You Remember. In that novel, police detective Eira Sjödin works to solve the murder of Sven Hagström. It’s connected with a twenty-three-year-old disappearance and presumed murder, and Eira uncovers several dark secrets as she works to find out the truth. It all involves several visits to different witnesses and ‘people of interest,’ and most of them include offers of coffee and biscuits. It’s just the unwritten rule: you put out something when someone visits.

Those unwritten rules of etiquette are an important part of human interaction. In fact, they’re so important that some of the finer points (like where utensils on a table setting belong) have been included in etiquette books. But the regular day-to-day unwritten rules (like thanking a bus driver) aren’t. Still, we know them and follow them. And so do crime-fictional characters.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Killer Queen.

12 thoughts on “Well Versed in Etiquette*

    1. Thanks, KBR. And you’re right; not fitting in in terms of etiquette can really be a good clue (or even a red herring). It’s a useful tool. And now that you mention it, I remember people thanking bus drivers when I’ve been in the UK. I like the custom 😀 It’s such an easy courtesy, but I think it means a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Margot, that was so interesting! We thank the bus driver here in the UK too, at least most people do. I’ve heard say that some countries/cultures don’t queue so they think the British habit of always queueing is quaint or archaic. Queue jumping would be a ‘real’ faux pas over here. So much so that if you’re not sure where the end of the queue is we say to a likely person, ‘Are you the end of the queue?’ LOL! Interesting how things change though. That Poirot is from the 1920s I think? Because these days a lot of hugging goes on here in the UK and I usually hug new arrivals.

    You know, I had never heard of that series set in Saudi Arabia by Zoe Ferraris. I was so intrigued I bought the first book for my Kindle. ‘Always’ love to try new crime series set in unusal countries.


    1. Thanks, Cath. I’m glad you thought the post was interesting. There really is an etiquette when it comes to queuing, isn’t there? You don’t queue jump here, either, and I’ve more than once asked people if they were at the end. It may be quaint, but it works, and I think one reason why is that when you’re waiting your turn, you know what to expect (that person up there, and then that person, and then…. and then it’s my turn). It’s interesting about hugging, too. In some cultures it simply is not done. In others, it would be considered rude not to hug. And, as you say, cultures do change over time, and, I’m sure, borrow from others.

      I do hope you’ll enjoy the Ferrarris. I thought it was very well done, and with a solid insight into the Saudi culture.


  2. Interesting topic, and a potential minefield! One I often notice in Scandi crime is that it seems to be the done thing to remove your outdoor shoes as you enter when visiting someone’s home, whereas here visitors would normally be expected merely to wipe their shoes on the doormat. Perhaps the difference between a snowy country and a rainy one?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s quite true, FictionFan – those rules of etiquette can be much more of a minefield than you might think. That’s part of what makes them interesting in a crime novel! It’s interesting about shoes, too. It might be snowy vs rainy climate. I think it’s the Japanese custom to remove shoes, too, and I’ve known several people here who request that. We once had friends who didn’t want potential toxins coming in on people’s shoes *shrug*. Whatever the reason, that’s a good example of the sort of etiquette thing that people need to learn if they’re to fit in.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Fascinating post, Margot. Etiquette puts into perspective the differences in cultures. We, in North America tend to think that people from different cultures should adapt to our ways without questioning. Well, now, thanks to your post, Margot, we can factor in etiquette and ask ourselves how far are we willing to drop our own etiquette rules.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Carol – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And you raise a fascinating point! We do often think people ought to adapt to our culture, but how willing are we to adapt? That’s a good question and it can really be apparent when we spend time in a culture not our own.

      Liked by 2 people

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