(Disclaimer: None of these examples are intended to offend a second time, so please take them in the educated spirit they are intended)
1. When You Should Keep The Soles Of Your Feet Hidden
I like to sit with my legs crossed. I was in London at a business meeting with an Arab client and while my legs were crossed I was showing him the sole of my shoes. Afterward someone told me that was an offense to an Arab.
No wonder I didn’t get the sale.
2. When You Shouldn’t Offer To Share Your Lunch Around
My most concerning cultural misunderstanding had to do with my ignorance of the importance of Ramadan practices in Moslem countries.
In ’94 I was working in Albania and part of my time there fell during Ramadan. The Albanians had just re-legalized religion and were beginning to attend prayers at the reopened mosques and beginning to publicly observe the Ramadan fast.
I was dumb as a rock about the whole thing and had no idea how offensive it was for me to eat, drink and even offer food to my Albanian contacts. They were very gracious about it but didn’t bother to educate me to the fact that my behavior was offensive.
I only learned it after the fact and remain embarrassed by it to this day. Any non-Moslem traveling to a Moslem country must take special care to try to understand the culture and learn some of the important rules of etiquette peculiar to Moslem culture.
Donald R. Newcomb
3. When The International Symbol For “OK” Isn’t As International As You Thought
I used to travel to Brazil as the technical representative of an international coffee company. Upon arrival at one of our key suppliers, they wanted me to see and taste the results of a process improvement that they had developed.
After going through the tasting ritual, I turned to them and with a big smile on my face, thought that I was indicating that the improvement was very good. However, when I held up my hand with a circle formed by my thumb and forefinger, symbolizing “OK” the faces around the room fell and there was a collective gasp of dismay.
As I later learned, that symbol does not have a universal meaning; in fact, it is a very derogatory way of describing a person’s anatomy – the part that is best left unspoken, unless you wish to say something like “Up yours!”
Andrew J. Perla, Inc. – a partner in RPQ, LLC
4. The “OK” Symbol Part 2…
Well, we’ve never actually offended anyone…that I know of. My husband and I were in Paris and, of course, we only know a little bit of French. You know, the niceties such as Bonjour, Bonsoir and S’il vous plait and perhaps a little more to get by.
My husband developed this peculiar habit of saying random words in French on the Metro out loud just so he could practice which amused me to no end. But what really got me laughing albeit (a little mortified) was when he made the “OK” symbol with his fingers when he was asked how things were going in restaurants or in stores.
I had to grab his hand when he did that as I was under the impression that making that gesture also meant something rather rude! He kept doing it too!
I think that finally, he stopped making that gesture toward the end of our trip. Thankfully, no one noticed…at least, I hope!
5. When Some Things Offend That You Have No Control Over
I was in Japan 30 years ago and taken to dinner by my agent in a private room with a customer and a geisha who served and made pleasant conversation in Japanese which I did not speak. We sat in the middle of the room on pillows on the floor. My agent translated.
When the geisha realized I was an American, she started going on about how she lost her family in Nagasaki from the A-bomb and how she hated Americans. I explained to her that I was born on Dec 6, 1941 and always believed the reason for the Pearl Harbor attack was her countries attempt to nip me in the bud.
Needless to say, I sold nothing on that trip.
6. When It’s Not OK To Ask Women If They’re Pregnant
While I was studying Spanish in Mexico during the early 80’s, I once made the faux pas of asking a single Mexican woman if a situation had made her “embarasada”. That of course, means pregnant, rather than embarrassed……they would typically refer to verguenza (shame).
Her shock was mirrored in my very red face, but I was feeling shame for sure; I wasn’t “embarasada” 😉
7. When Two Words Can Have Amusingly Different Meanings
Now that I’m traveling in Europe, I consider myself lucky to have been forewarned, about the use of “fanny pack” in the UK. They say “bum bag”, which is logical. The “illogical” part, to us Yanks, is that a “fanny” is slang for the opposite side, in the UK….go figure! I love relating that to my American friends; male or female, their response is “you’re kidding, right?” ‘Tis a fact; kid you not!
“Motorcycle/Motorbike” Pete, Medford Oregon, USA
Even The Professionals Get It Wrong…
If you’ve ever done something similar, take heart that you’re not alone. Here are some more examples of cultural misunderstandings…
Even more customs and traditions can be found in another article, which can be found right here.
If you’ve experienced different cultures please share how different they are compared to your own.