Hawaii’s cultural differences bring out how unique a region may be in what is an acceptable question to ask a stranger and what is not, as that is a pattern that occurs not just in an island culture but other regions as well. A recent example comes from the question, “How tall are you?”
Asking a stranger in an elevator, on a street corner or at the window of a bank, as well as in other situations, how tall he or she is would be considered impolite in most places on the mainland. It is not, however, considered impolite by local people when they see someone who stands out as different than the average man or woman in height.
At 5’9 1/2 inches tall in my younger years and now 5’8 1/2 from shrinkage related to aging and osteoporosis, I am taller than the average woman in Hawaii. That is because there are far more people with Asian backgrounds, and mixes with them in Hawaii than on the mainland; and the women of Hawaii are shorter than the average woman on the mainland. Native Hawaiian women may be somewhat taller, however they too have intermarried with Asian groups; and many are now somewhat shorter than their ancestors might have been. It is difficult to get an average for heights of either men or women in Hawaii, as there are so many ethnic types and mergers by marriage; however observations over time have found people somewhat shorter in the islands than in many mainland areas. The average height for women on the mainland is 5’4″ and for men 5’9.”
A woman of 5’8″ and counting would be considered significantly above average in Hawaii, enough for people to notice the height difference. Yet there are distinct differences in how this may be treated in Hawaii vs the mainland when meeting a stranger for the first time.
At a local bank just yesterday in Waianae, Hawaii, a region on the Leeward side of the island of Oahu, a local customer asked me the question I have been asked over 40 years in the islands, “How tall are you?” Having answered the question pleasantly many, many times, and being somewhat impatient with it while waiting in line a full twenty minutes to meet with a teller, I said, “I’ll tell you how tall I am if you tell me how much you weigh?” The customer laughed, then said, “I see what you mean.”
The question regarding height might seem impolite to some cultures, especially people originally from the mainland, but is not considered offensive in Hawaii. Questions concerning age of anyone appearing under age 50 are also common and simply asked out of curiosity and not meant to be insulting, even though it might be on the mainland.
In the South, if a woman is nude in front of a locker at a spa, she might be questioned by other women around her, or even attendants, and asked to get dressed in a stall. Even someone wrapped in a towel and completely covered, might be found offensive by local residents. In Natchitoches, Louisiana a few years ago, an attendant and the manager of a spa asked me to dress in the men’s area as men seldom came to the spa. When I asked why the answer was, “It’s important for modesty.” In Hawaii, however, women walk around nude in the dressing room, sometimes only with a towel on the head, while conversing with other women on the topics of the day. The same behavior takes place in the spas and gym clubs in Portland, Oregon, behaviors that would not be countenanced in many areas of the South.
For those who travel, visit or decide to live in a new area of the United States or in the world, learning these subtle differences can be important so as not to insult the local people. Getting along in a new culture may mean taking a one down in some areas, putting aside the small notions that can get in the way of making friends.
“How tall are you?” is an innocent question in Hawaii. I will continue to laugh while answering it, enjoying the banter that takes place as it leads to conversations about culture and the making of new friends.