One striking scene from the excellent novel, Shantaram, involves the Western protagonist riding in the unreserved compartment of an Indian train.
As soon as the train’s doors open, he observes how the vast throng of people rush to grab the limited seats for the long journey ahead. In this chaos, he observes how people launch themselves through windows, step on each other, shove around, punch, kick and do whatever it takes to acheive their objective. Disgusted at this scene, he wonders why these people cannot behave themselves.
After the train starts moving and the crowd has settled down, a fellow passenger’s foot accidentally makes contact with his body. As soon as this happened the passenger touched the Westerner’s knee and then his own chest with his right hand – an Indian gesture of apology. He also observed how all the passengers were respectful with each other, engaging in warm conversation and sharing their food.
The protagonist couldn’t reconcile these two scenes – just an hour earlier, the very people who had shoved, kicked and scartched each other were now the paragons of humility and politeness. He thought of their behaviour as being inconsistent.
However, after staying longer in the country, he is struck by an insight that resolves this paradox. In both situations, people were responding to the need of the hour. When the seats were scarce, the need of the hour was to secure them, even if violence was necessary. Once everybody had settled down, the need of the hour was to have a pleasant journey with one’s fellow travellers. By this measure, the people’s behaviour was entirely consistent.
We often think of decorum, manners, morals and norms as being universal, thereby jumping to judgement that is divorced from context. When people behave a certain way, it represents merely the tip of the iceberg that is their context. If we wish to understand their behaviour, we need to understand their context. If we wish to change their behaviour, we need to change their context.