The importance of being able to work and communicate with others harmoniously can not be overstated. This kind of camaraderie is a recipe for success in any organization or business. Unfortunately, cross-cultural differences can create disharmony between people. Resolving these differences can have instant and long term benefits. However, you have to be able to identify them and nip them in the bud before they get out of hand. Here are some cultural misunderstanding examples you can learn from.
Examples of Cultural Misunderstanding to Take Care
Once when we visited my grandparents in Japan, my grandfather yelled at my mom for not slurping her soup. Apparently, my grandmother was not amused and was upset by my mom's unbecoming behavior, so my grandfather had to intervene. My mom tried to explain that it was rude in western culture to slurp her soup but my grandfather just yelled back “when in Rome behave as Romans do!”
This is the same grandfather who at one point memorized the words of the dictionary to learn English and later ate the pages to “internalize” it. How cute. Oh gosh, I miss him.
Kiss on the Cheek
Once in a conference I was assigned to be sort of the team leader for a group of Latin Americans. One of the girls in the group really tickled my fancy and we hit it off for we had shared views on many issues.
After the evening activities, we rode the elevator together up to our hotel rooms. As we got off and prepared to get into our rooms, she suddenly kissed me on my cheek. Well, I naturally considered this as a sign that she was into me. What's more, we were both adults in a hotel and no one in the group knew we were together. I went into hookup auto pilot and dived in to French kiss her.
But she pulled away almost immediately. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. Still shocked at the turn of events, she managed to mumble something to the effect that she was just saying goodnight. I wished the ground would open up and swallow me. In Asian, when two people say good night, they usually say it with words or by shaking or waving hands. Kissing the check is not that common. So the sudden "intimacy", the circumstances and my feeling just got me.
The good thing was that I wasn’t fired. The next morning she kept avoiding me and pretended we didn’t have that encounter. This must be one of the most embarrassing cultural misunderstanding examples.
Party Faux Pas
We moved to Mexico when I was only 13. Naturally, I picked up on the language very fast. I thought I had a firm grasp of the language until one day when my older brother’s friend invited me for a party. I was thrilled, especially because the girl I had a crush on would be there.
While heading there, I fell in the streets and banged up my knee pretty bad. But nothing was going to stop me from attending the party, so I limped my way there. When I got to the door, I announced to a living room full of people “Cagé! Me cagé en la calle!” This was followed by a moment of silence and then bursts of laughter.
It turned out that I should have said “caer” instead of “cage”. Caer means to fall while cage means to shit. So I had basically announced that I had shit myself in the streets.
What? Never Heard About It?
I took a Japanese class with an American guy who assumed everyone in Japan was a manga fan and played video games all day. He thought the country was a magical land where everyone was into the same.
It felt really awkward watching him trying to talk to the Japanese teacher about his favorite games and manga characters from the 90’s. Usually, she had no idea what the guy was talking about and would just give him a blank stare or awkward smile. But apparently he didn’t get the message. He would act surprised whenever the teacher told him she’s never heard about the stuff he was talking about and say “but everyone in Japan knows”.
It was obvious that the teacher who was a housewife and had no interest in video games, wrestling, etc. But this guy acted like he knew the real Japan and the Japanese teacher was living her life the wrong way. As a fellow American, I felt somehow embarrassed.
I finally realized the thumb sign didn’t mean the same to all when I gave it to my friend’s dad. He’s Iranian. The look of disgust on his face said it all. Apparently, giving the thumb is equivalent to giving him the finger. That’s one of my most embarrassing cultural misunderstanding examples.
Once in a restaurant in Chuang Mai, Thailand, I ordered some phad kaprow, stir-fried pork with basil on rice. It was late at night and it was in one of those dingy restaurants that open under an overpass. I assumed it was a dodgy area and hid my money in my socks.
When I had my fill, I called the old lady who was serving me
and retrieved some money from my socks. She went berserk and started
causing a scene. I was distraught wondering what exactly I had done
wrong. She grabbed the money from me and pointed to the picture of the
king. Apparently, the feet are considered filthy in Thailand and I had
committed the cardinal sin of putting the king under my feet. I tried
explaining that I didn’t know, but she was having none of it.
Soles of the Feet
had a business meeting with an Arab in London. I like sitting with my
legs crossed and stretched out. The man did not say anything during the meeting but he told me later that it was offensive to show an Arab the soles of my
feet. Maybe that’s why I did not get the deal.
many Central American and Asian countries, guests are expected to
leave immediately after dinner. Staying around indicates that you
haven’t eaten enough. However, if you left immediately after a meal in
the Indian subcontinent, some North American countries and Europe, it
would be considered rude. It would be assumed that you were only
interested in the food and did not enjoy the host’s company.
Different cultures have different understandings about being on time. Here are some examples for you:
In Germany, although there are some who are disorderly and not on time, the cliches still hold the truth: order, punctuality and work play an important part in Germany.
In South Korea, being on time is highly valued and being late is considered a sign of disrespect.
In Malaysia, being late is totally acceptable. Usually "I will be late for 5 min" equals "I will be late for about 60 min".
In China, punctuality is also valued; being ahead of time is a gesture of manner, but it's not regarded late if one arrives within 10 minutes of the set time.
It is standard in China to always serve hot meals. In the US, cold food is very common (cereal, sandwiches, salads, etc.).
In Africa, telling a female friend that she has put on weight since your last met is considered a compliment while saying the same in Australia, North America or Europe could be considered an insult.
These are some of the
cultural misunderstanding examples from across the globe.