Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cultural Humiliations

Warning, the following has strong language. There was really no way I could get my point across without it.

Black Pete is lovin' it
Is McDonald's lovin' this?
Photo by Andrew Yee
People often don't believe me when I say this, but I've experienced more cultural awkwardness in the UK than the Netherlands. That's because here in the Netherlands, I expect things to be different. In the UK, it kind of crept up on me.  My first few months in the UK were one faux pas after another. I'm talking about serious mistakes, not minor gaffes. I escaped unscathed largely because the British people understood that our cultures are not the same. In those few months I flipped off one of the bosses, offered to masturbate for a friend's girlfriend and asked our exquisitely beautiful office manager — in front of our HR director no less! — if she knew what a "pussy" was.

I'm not going to explain the context of those situations because that would kind of kill the point of highlighting the importance of knowing another culture. Suffice it to say that many Americans who've watched an episode or two of Monty Python come over here and think they "understand" Britain. After Canada, the UK is probably those closest country to the US in terms of both politics and culture. We were part of the UK, for cryin' out loud. However, I strongly expect that many Americans could have watched me in the various offending situations above and not realized I had done anything wrong.

If you're moving to another country, remember that you are the foreigner, not them. More than once I've watched Americans berate staff because — gasp — things are not the same as their ignorant asses were used to in the US! What? You didn't want to pay for the water with your meal? You should have asked for tap water. Bottled will be assumed. You're upset that the restaurant didn't offer table service? Many of them will have numbers on the table and you're expected to order at the bar and give your table number. No waiter/waitress is going to come by. Or my favorite (so to speak) was watching two American women in Albert Hijn (a Dutch grocery store) scream at a clerk because they didn't realize that they had to weigh and label their own fruit and vegetables (er, this was a decade ago and I don't know if that still applies).

Empty plates - Demitri's Feast
Who would have thought this
is rude in some cultures?
Photo by avlxyz
Some cultures require you to eat all of the food on your plate to show that you enjoyed the food whereas others require you to leave a bite to show the host that you had enough food to eat. Some cultures require the main guest to start eating first and others require the host to begin. In the Middle East, some countries expect you to only eat with your right hand. I grew up thinking eating with the back of the fork was somewhat lower class, but this is common practice in Europe as is eating with the fork in the left hand instead of the right as the US does.

And honestly, before the shoe was thrown at Bush, how many of you knew that showing someone the sole of your foot was a strong insult in many Arabic nations? I certainly didn't.

I don't care how easygoing you are, it's worth your while to study your target country's cultural practices and at least get to know the taboos. You may just save yourself considerable embarrassment.


  1. Hehe, I didn't know that holding two fingers up peace sign fashion is an insult. LOL Ask Lynne, I'm sure she remembers. I still have a bit to learn when I am in England.

  2. Oh, hi sis :)

    Actually, holding them up like a peace sign is OK -- if the palm is facing away from you. It's when it's facing towards you that it's "flipping someone off".

  3. As an aside to anyone else who may have been confused by the above exchange: Gayle is my sister from the US and Lynne is my sister from the UK. We also have two brothers alive in the UK, and two American brothers who have passed away.

    Growing up, I pretty much only knew about Gayle and David (one of the passed away brothers). I could write an entire month of blog entries about our very strange family, but it would be rather outside of the scope of this blog :)

  4. I recommend the book _Behave Yourself!_ to all globetrotting types. It covers basic etiquette in around 50 countries.

  5. I worked for a company with office in the UK and worked with one guy there quite a bit. We both had a laugh over Jiffy Lube. I was startled the first time he said he "cocked up" something to me, though he was offended by a random email signature that said "F is for Fanny, sucked dry by a leech."

  6. @Brendan: When a friend of mine heard that one of my favourite cookbooks was The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, he said "The Cunt Cultivator"?

  7. Could you explain the first picture? I don't get it. Is it racist?

  8. @Matthew: I'm guessing you're not an American as I would be astonished to meet an American who is not familiar with blackface (though I suppose it's possible). For many in the US (of all races), it's incredibly offensive as its rise in that country was largely a means of perpetuating stereotypes about blacks as lazy and stupid.

  9. @ Ovid: It's funny but for me - and I am just talking at a personal level- there was nothing wrong with this picture.

    It was just a decoration in a window. I even thought it was one of St Nicolas little helper.

  10. Leïla: that may be because you're French and didn't grow up with the US cultural attitudes about this topic.

  11. Within a few hours of arriving in New York I was in a traffic jam in a car with my New York manager. I spoke about the "robot" (traffic light). I then suggested he use the "hooter" (horn).

  12. If it's any consolation, I spent two and a half years trying convince my fellow PTA committee members to stock rubbers in the elementary school store. They held surprisingly firm on the matter. I'm a Brit, they were American. And apparently they prefer the word eraser..