A common worry when traveling to a foreign country, learning a language or otherwise interacting with foreigners is that you could be, well. . . completely misunderstood. Capitally offending someone also ranks high on the list of concerns. When wondering if you’ll remember to eat with your right hand in India, or if you’ll be down with all the bowing in Japan, allow CORE Languages to explain the logistics of respecting people of other cultures. CORE Languages strives to facilitate intercultural exchanges, thus we’ll illustrate what you’ll want to learn in preparing to navigate unknown territory and some forms respect can take. Once you’re able to prevent a culture clash before it unfolds, you can put your mind at ease in foreign company and focus on enjoying your differences and learning from them. While we can’t cover every country and people, we’ll provide an investigative framework to apply to your unique situation.
A first step in your quest to stay respectful should be to develop the ability to rectify a wrongdoing so that you can remedy an unpleasant situation. It’s advisable to learn the words, gestures and logic that comprise a proper apology in that culture, so you don’t miss your aim after making a mistake. The words and gestures (imagine an English-speaker placing a hand in the center of their chest while saying “my fault”) comprising the apology are important, but the logic behind why people apologize and what they should express is vital. While a native of the U.S. might say: “I’m sorry I wasn’t on time, I let my meeting run late. I’ll watch the clock better next time” not every apology needs to admit personal responsibility for the blunder and imply rectification or changed behavior. In the collectivist culture of Japan, for example, a general expression of apology for unfortunate circumstances often suffices. There’s no need to admit culpability or mention future corrections and doing so might worsen the situation.
The words and gestures (imagine an English-speaker placing a hand in the center of their chest while saying “my fault”) comprising the apology are important.
Before a long-awaited vacation, business trip, permanent relocation, or other contact with foreigners, it’s advisable to research the target culture and discern how they might perceive you. Foremost, discover the characteristics of the country or people in all or some of the following areas: religion, politics, level of development, values, education, diversity of the population, food and pertinent historical events. To realize the depths you might need to cover, compare Zimbabwe, Sweden, Tahiti and Colombia and their inhabitants, for example. The differences that come to mind when comparing these countries are the kind to research.
After exploring the background of the company you’ll keep, imagine how you would fit in at this locale and how you will appear to people of that background. Comparing yourself to them will show you areas to focus on to anticipate potential unintended breaches of respect. Consider your language(s), nationality, physical characteristics and the premise you have for interacting with them. Will you stay in a home where you’ll need to use certain etiquette and express gratitude for a home-cooked meal? Or will you give a speech that you’d pepper with jokes when addressing your colleagues at home, but that might need to exclude humor abroad to avoid a misunderstanding? Foreseeing the situations you’ll encounter will lead you to the specific behaviors and conversations to master before traveling to a foreign country or meeting certain people.
Once you identify both the similarities and opportunities for a potential culture clash, learn from the following ostensible adaptations that can avoid faux pas in certain cultures. One of the most memorable practices is to show respect by bowing in Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea and other Asian countries (read more about showing respect while doing business in Asia here). Bowing is used to greet others and express gratitude, among other applications. Deciding to eat with your right hand in India is a wise choice because it shows respect for your hosts or company. It may seem arrogant, insensitive or just plain awful if you don’t comply with this norm. Degrees of respect are shown through language in Spanish-speaking countries, because addressing strangers and older persons requires a different verb form than is used to talk to others. This is the classic tú vs. usted distinction that is difficult for non-native speakers to apply, and also varies by Spanish-speaking country and region.
No discussion of intercultural respect is complete without mentioning attire and eye contact. Especially if traveling to a foreign country that is more traditional, thoroughly investigate required wardrobe adjustments to avoid a culture clash. Vital considerations include when to remove your shoes, cover your head, how much skin to show, degrees of formality and jewelry. Eye contact is a subtle gesture, but if the intent behind it is misconstrued, it could lead to seriously disrespectful outcomes. Extended eye contact during conversation is the norm in Western cultures, while in the Middle East strict rules govern glances between sexes, and further variations in customs occur in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
In the Middle East, strict rules govern glances between sexes, and further variations in customs occur in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Finally, be aware that business dealings and negotiations differ in other countries. Westerners, and especially US citizens, may be surprised to find that business requires more relationship building in the Middle East and Asia and less focus on the bottom line. “Time is money” doesn’t apply everywhere, despite the extra transactions piled on the corporate card during business trips.
Never let the volume of cultural differences between you and another frighten you. Often, just trying to be culturally sensitive is appreciated. Even if you don’t execute well, you’ve taken the time to learn about another and invested in a relationship. Knowing the best ways to show respect and be culturally sensitive may seem complex, but the fun, experience and learning opportunities that come from making a friend or connection who is different from you make it worth the while.