Crossed Cultures: 5 Tips for Avoiding Cultural Faux Pas

Chris Willemsen

Written by  Kathleen O’Hagan May 8, 2013
Keep your hands on the straight-and-narrow and your feet out of your mouth.  

Picture this: After graduating, you’ve just moved to the other side of the world to begin your first real job. At the welcome dinner organized by your new manager, you feel a bit like the monkey at the zoo, with everyone staring at you, not speaking. But, you remind yourself, you do look different and don’t speak the local language… so what can you expect?

Relief comes when the meal arrives and you dig right in with the rest of the group. Turning to talk with your new manager who, thankfully, speaks English, you leave your chopsticks standing upright, stuck firmly into your bowl of rice. A horrified gasp from the people around you. You stiffen, and swallow nervously. Your manager snatches your chopsticks out of the bowl, and says in a disapproving whisper: “This is a custom saved for funerals ONLY!” Red-faced and apologizing profusely you continue your meal. Unfortunately, you’ve lost your appetite.

That was me when I first moved to Japan.

Moving to a new country with a different culture is bound to result in a few embarrassing slip-ups, no matter how well read, open minded, or ready for adventure you are. Here are some tips which, hopefully, will help you avoid unwittingly offending someone and humiliating yourself like I did.

  1. Interview those who have gone before you. Get in touch with friends and acquaintances who have been where you’re going. Get the inside scoop about everything from public restrooms to public displays of affection. Ask them to describe their largest blunder and have them advise you on what you need to know to avoid blunders of your own.

  2. Take a step back and observe. Once you’re in your destination country, make it a habit to stand back at gatherings and observe what is going on around you. Greetings, expressions of gratitude and dining etiquette are the top three scenarios you should be making note of—and picking up—as quickly as possible.

  3. Befriend the locals. If you stick to making friends with people who are just like you, it will take you that much longer to understand the local customs. How can you know it’s wrong to blow your nose in public if all your friends are doing it? Learn by watching and listening to your new friends. It will fast-track your understanding of their culture.

  4. Read a lot—especially body language and facial expressions. You may have read all the books you could get your hands on about your new home, but there’s one thing you can’t forget to read; the people. The sooner you are able to recognize expressions of shock, disbelief, disappointment and embarrassment, the sooner you will be able to pull your foot out of your mouth, apologize and avoid making the same mistake again.

  5. Ask lots and lots of questions. Then ask some more. Local people tend to appreciate foreigners who ask questions rather than those who make unfortunate assumptions. You can learn different sets of cultural rules from your boss, neighbours, colleagues and friends. If you’ve been invited to an event where you are unsure of etiquette or expectations around dress, greetings, giving or receiving gifts, table manners… ask the person who invited you.

Be observant, open to change and don’t let a faux-pas or two make you feel like a failure. And never, never tell the locals that the way you do it back home is “right” or “better.” That’s one faux-pas that’s just plain unforgivable!

Kathleen O'Hagan is a freelance writer and works with Ingle International, a Canadian insurance provider specializing in travel insurance since 1946.

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