Thursday, November 5, 2015

Take the Pen

Remember the Seinfeld episode when Jerry went to visit his parents in Florida? They lived in a retirement community called Del Boca Vista. During the visit a neighbor named Jack Klompus stopped by. Jack had an astronaut pen. It was called that because you could write with it upside down. Jerry admired the pen.The dialogue goes like this. 

JERRY: What kind of pen is that?
JACK: This pen?
JERRY: Yeah.
JACK: This is an astronaut pen. It writes upside down. They use this in space.
JERRY: Wow! That's the astronaut pen. I heard about that. Where did you get it?
JACK: Oh it was a gift.
JERRY: Cause sometimes I write in bed and I have to turn and lean on my elbow to make the pen work.
JACK: Take the pen.
JERRY: Oh no.
JACK: Go ahead.
JERRY: I couldn't
JACK: Come on, take the pen!
JERRY: I can't take it.
JACK: Do me a personal favor!
JERRY: No, I'm not...
JACK: Take the pen!
JERRY: I cannot take it!
JACK: Take the pen!
JERRY: Are you sure?
JACK: Positive! Take the pen!
JERRY: O.K. Thank you very much. Thank you. Gee, boy!

Then Jack leaves and Jerry's mother says to Jerry, "What did you take his pen for?"

Here's what I have learned. This is American behavior. I'm not saying it's bad. I am and always will be proudly American. But this is not how people behave in other places. 

People here are happy to accept gifts and offers of help. There is no argument, there is no back and forth there is simply a thank you. It's the opposite of what I am used to. It's as if it would be rude NOT to accept an offer of assistance.

I first noticed this months ago when we still lived at the Sunninghill Guest Lodge. We didn't have much of a kitchen so I had bought a pizza for lunch. I couldn't eat all of it so I asked the maid if she would like the rest. And she said yes! I was shocked. I never in a million years actually thought she would take it. It's not that I wanted the pizza, it's that my whole life I have been trained that in that situation while it is nice to offer the other person is likely going to decline the offer. 

Can you imagine if you tried to offer your leftover pizza to someone in the U.S.? A co-worker or a hotel maid?  Anyone short of a homeless person would likely be confused. They might even wonder what was wrong with the pizza.

You: would you like the rest of this pizza? 
Person: you don't want it? 
You: no I'm full. I can't eat another bite.
Person: well you can save it and eat it later. 
You: yes I could do that but I am wondering if you would like it.
Person: I don't want to take your pizza
You: I'm telling you I want to give it to you.
Person: No, you keep it. I ate lunch already.

And on and on and on.

Here are a bunch more examples of people in South Africa "taking the pen." 
One day I had to go to the dry cleaners. I was eating some pretzels at the time. One of the ladies working at the cleaners remarked that the pretzels looked good. I asked if she would like some and she said yes. 

I often give Christine food to take home. She always accepts it and simply says thank you. I don't have to make up a story about how I have left over chicken and I'm not going to eat it and it's going to go bad and yes I could freeze it blah blah. I just simply say please take this chicken home and she replies thank you.

The guards where we live will sometimes stop me when I'm driving out and ask me if I am going to the shops. If I say that I am they will ask me to bring them a loaf of bread and a 2 liter coke. I think they sometimes unexpectedly have to work double shifts and they can't leave their posts to get food. Oh and we can talk another time about how a loaf of white bread and a giant coke is not a proper meal! Anyway, the guards always offer to pay for this food but I never let them. And they don't argue. They don't try to throw their money through my open car window or anonymously tape it to my front door, they just say thank you.

Maybe you are thinking that it's only people who are poor and possibly desperate who readily accept offers of help. Well the people in the above examples all have jobs although it's true some are struggling. But just to prove my point here is another example.

Mr. Deep and I went to an outside bar/restaurant on a recent Sunday afternoon. Most of the tables were in the full sun but one very large table was in the shade. We sat at the shaded table. Soon after a large group of six people showed up. They had the same dilemma, they wanted to sit in the shade but there were no shaded tables. So we said they could sit with us. AND THEY DID! And then our food arrived and we offered them some of it and they accepted. So you can see there is an assumption here that you are being genuine when you offer something to someone. 

This is actually one of the things I love about living here. It's easy to be kind. It's easy to pick up a loaf of bread and a coke at the store for less than $2.00 and give it to the guys who keep us safe in our neighborhood. It's easy to grab a cold drink out of the refrigerator and bring it to the gym and give it to the guy who stands and watches my parked car in the hot sun all day and only gets paid if people give him spare change. It's a good thing not waste food that I am not going to use and give it to Christine to take home. It's fun to sit with a 70 year old guy and his friends at an outdoor bar and have him sing Kenny Roger's The Gambler for all to hear. Yes, that happened. It's nice to be nice. 

1 comment:

  1. That is very interesting. I always thought everybody was like we are. In general I've only been able to help people that were clearly poor but it can be a hit or miss thing. My successes have usually been with people who I knew at the time or found out later were on some sort of welfare program. The rest will be too proud and sometimes testily so. I wonder where Americans picked up the habit? I'd assume it comes from the British connection as I know that most Brits are like Americans in that regard but your shade table story would seem to blow that out of the water but maybe long time living in Africa changes things. Interesting,


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Hello and thank you for taking an interest in my blog. This blog tells the story of some big life changes. First, my husband and I have just moved to Geneva, Switzerland for a few months following a few years of living in Johannesburg, South Africa. The two places could not be more different. I'm excited to share our adventures, challenges and insights with you! My thoughts and opinions are my own.