Who would cut in front of a line of elderly people waiting to buy groceries? Me! That’s who. I saw them standing in the front of a grocery store and thought, “How nice. Czechs help older people go shopping.” In reality, they were waiting in line because, at the time, only five people were allowed in at once. (This was during the Eastern Bloc years.)
Instead of waiting my turn, I walked right past them, past their wheelchairs and walkers, and started shopping like the “American pig” I apparently am. Needless to say, I was yelled at in a language I couldn’t begin to understand, then physically escorted out wondering the entire time, “What the hell did I do?”
Cultural faux pas happen all the time. It’s when we do something that offends another culture without realizing it. Sometimes we’re trying to be nice, but beware: In some countries, gestures like offering to shake someone’s hand (with the wrong hand) or giving them the thumbs-up sign can be terribly offensive. We need to pay attention to what we wear, how we act, even how we eat.
It’s just one of the many cultural faux pas I’ve made in my life. I’ve been yelled at by a West Indian woman simply for boarding a bus. I didn’t realize it was my responsibility to say, “Good afternoon!” to everyone already on board. As a young reporter, it took me months to live down the time I insisted on being let into the locker room of a boxer. I thought I was doing what every other female reporter was doing at the time — getting the same interviews as my male colleagues. But, in a different culture, it appeared as if I was making a sexual gesture toward the boxer.
Top 5 Cultural Faux Pas
• Avoid public displays of affection (PDA): Many conservative countries look down on kissing, hand-holding, even hugging in public. If you don’t see locals doing it, don’t do it yourself. It’s actually illegal in some countries like China, India, Indonesia, and most countries in the Middle East.
• Watch same-sex affection: Homosexuality is illegal in 79 countries, sometimes punishable by death. Unless you’re willing to go to jail or worse, research LGBT laws before traveling. There are no laws against same-sex unions in Europe, but some Eastern European countries have laws that discriminate.
• Shake with right hand: In many cultures, it’s insulting to shake hands with the left hand. Always use your right hand in Asia, India, Africa, and the Middle East. For some this is because the left hand is used for bathroom tasks. For others, it’s a cultural tradition that shows you hold no weapon.
• Eating Etiquette: In the cultures mentioned above, eat with your right hand as well. In Asia, when not using your chopsticks, set them flat and parallel across your bowl or plate. Crossing them or laying them uneven resembles incense used in funerals. Also, don’t tap them on your bowl. That’s what beggars do. A little food left on the plate will signal you are done eating. In Italy, don’t order a cappuccino after breakfast. Many feel it upsets your stomach and won’t serve them later in the day. In Russia, never turn down vodka. It’s a sign of friendship and trust. In many parts of Europe, Central and South America, Africa, and the Caribbean, expect to eat dinner late and pace yourself — it’s a social gathering that usually lasts for hours.
• Dress to Impress: In most countries, keep beachwear at the beach. Many locals in beach towns, especially people in the Caribbean, are offended by revealing clothes in public places. Cover up in places of worship, whether it’s a temple in Thailand or a church in Argentina. The Vatican makes a fortune selling disposable scarfs for women who come with bare shoulders. As a rule of thumb, you should cover your shoulders, midriff, and knees. Women should also cover their hair in Muslim mosques.
Siu King does not fit the stereotype of a nice, quiet, stay-at-home Chinese wife. Despite coming from a very traditional Chinese family, she’s well educated, works as a respiratory therapist in a leading Denver hospital, and even had her American fiancé sign an agreement giving her control of the family finances. Bubbling with enthusiasm, she is not afraid to speak her mind.
She walks that thin line between being a modern American woman and respecting her family’s deeply held traditions. Before she could marry, she needed their approval. She says it took “six months to train my fiancé to meet the elders.” It’s all about respect.
Showing respect is a complex, intricately woven web that’s easy to fall into. For example, remove your shoes before entering a house. When offered a drink, accept it with both hands to show gratitude. Never say “no” when offered something to eat or drink. “Women spend days cooking,” Siu says. “It’s how they show their love.” Be careful, she warns. “Some women will try to trick you by offering soy sauce or other seasonings.” Do not season your food as this sends a message that the person who prepared it
isn’t a good cook.
Travis Ochs is a Denver attorney and world traveler. Following a stint prosecuting ivory smugglers in Hong Kong, Travis says he and a friend “decided to have a great adventure.” Temporarily moving to Taiwan, they set out to find jobs. They signed a lease at the Palace on the Moon Love Hotel, made business cards with their new address, then began meeting potential employers. Travis says everything was going great until they left their new business cards. “We couldn’t understand why people were looking at us so weird.” Turns out everyone, except Travis and his friend, know that a “love hotel” is a “whore house.” Cultural faux pas! Lesson learned! When accidentally renting a room in a whore house, do not pass out business cards alerting potential employers to your living situation.
The easiest way to avoid cultural pitfalls is to do your research. Learn as much as you can about cultures and traditions before traveling or moving outside the US. Once there, pay attention to what the locals are doing and follow their lead.