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Cultural Norms: What to Expect

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In this article we will:

  • compare differences in customs
  • see what locals will appreciate you to do
  • see what locals don’t expect you to do

Dark Arabian eyes dart from their table to you. Their robed arms thrust a finger in your direction and in a mortified voice one of them yells, “He’s eating with his left hand!” Your mouth agape, you ever so slowly slip your left hand under the table and wipe your sullied, shamed fingers on your pant leg. You then pick up the cursed fork that the waiter had left there from the beginning for ignorant foreigners and stab your food, head dropped in shame. You flick your eyes at your accusers to see them turn back to their tables shaking their heads. You wonder what Arabic table talk is going on there now. As you hear their muted voices, you imagine them complaining of the ignorance and impudence of some travelers that come to their homeland.

Most of us, when in another country, want to experience their culture. If we’ve just come for bragging rights, at least we’ll want to respect their culture. We want to see smiling eyes of locals, impressed at our ability to use chopsticks. We want to see the nods of encouragement as we shovel food into our mouth from our cupped hand. Right hand that is. Left hand is saved for cleaning the buttocks with. Locals don’t like seeing people put those fingers in their mouth. (See Left Side! Wrong Side!)

Here are some things that may be expected of you.

City of David

Great Expectations

Locals don’t honestly expect visitors to know and observe all their customs. For instance, in Uganda, women customarily greet men by approaching them and then dropping to their knees (even on the street) to show respect. My wife was not expected to do this though, as it was common knowledge that people in other countries do not follow their custom. On the other hand, they are very favorably impressed when a foreigner makes the effort to observe their customs. In Nepal, a thumbs up will be taken as a proud declaration that you have to go number two. We have to face the fact that we can’t completely blend in with the locals. But we do want to find the balance between respecting their customs and intriguing them with our own.

Here’s an example. An older Caucasian gentleman is visiting Peru. He has learned the greeting “¿Cómo está?” and he uses it on everybody. The thing is, locals wouldn’t necessarily greet people younger than them in that manner, they would favor the more informal “¿Cómo estás?” instead. But the fact that this foreign gentleman is exceptionally polite to everyone will be very pleasing. The kids will love hearing it said to them! So, if it was a minor ignorance on the part of this older man that he was unnecessarily formal, was any harm done? No! On the contrary, his different manner proved to be a breath of fresh air.

 

The Bottom Line

 If people see we are trying to show respect to their way of doing things, it won’t matter if we don’t do it exactly right.

But to avoid the embarrassment of left handed feeding and the like, do two things. First, before you go, research basic customs, greetings, and etiquette. Second, while you’re there, be observant. See how locals do things and then make an effort to imitate them. The warm smiles on their appreciative faces will make the effort worthwhile!

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