You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know: Minimizing Cultural Faux Pas

Every country is unique. It has its own customs, culture, and often language–among other things. When travelling abroad it is easy to assume that everyone approaches and reacts to things in a manner that is similar to the way in which we do in America. This is actually far from the truth! What may be completely acceptable in the United States may be taboo in another country. It is important, as visitors, to be respectful of the etiquette and customs of other countries, yet many people still commit obvious faux pas. The Office of Protocol here at The International Center tries to minimize these cultural faux pas. We provide briefing booklets to business and government officials who are travelling abroad filled with protocol and etiquette information about particular countries. These include country overview and cultural dos and don’ts.
Why is this so important? When conducting business abroad you are representing many things: yourself, your department, your company, and your country. You implicitly assume the role of an Ambassador of the United States, yet without adequate knowledge of the culture you are visiting, you may appear as unsophisticated, naïve, and even rude. This could have many repercussions, including damaging a business relationship, insulting the people that you want to impress, and in extreme cases causing others to deem you unprepared for a global position.

According to Ann Marie Sabath, author of Business Etiquette: 101 Ways to Conduct Business with Charm and Savvy, while conducting business abroad, more than 70% of inexperienced American travelers commit cultural faux pas. Many common mistakes include not bringing a USA-made gift to a client upon the first meeting, assuming a handshake instead of a kiss or bow, using meals as a time to conduct business, and not being aware or interested in a country’s culture or history. Making some manner of cultural mistakes while abroad is almost inevitable. The key, however, is to minimize these mistakes and learn how to recover from them.

Some interesting cultural faux pas include:

  • In China do not stick the chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, as this is how it is presented to the dead.
  • In Mexico, standing with your hands on your hips or in your pockets is seen as rude and the indication of a challenge.
  • In Russia it is considered impolite to show the soles of your shoes and they should not be placed on any type of seat.
  • In Thailand, do not pat someone on the head. The head is sacred and this is taken as an insult.
  • In India, saying no directly during business discussions is avoided, as it is not polite. Instead you may hear “I will try” or “possibly”, which is considered a polite ‘no’.
  • In Iran and other parts of the Middle East, the thumbs up sign is vulgar. In Brazil, the “a-ok” sign is considered vulgar. In Greece holding your hand with the palm outwards is an offensive gesture.

It is important to be aware of cultural differences not only when traveling abroad, but also here at home. Our country becomes increasingly diverse every day. Cross-cultural misunderstandings can lead to anger, hurt, and unrest. The International Center recognizes the importance of cross-cultural understanding and is committed to enhancing the cultural awareness and sensitivity of all Hoosiers. Its presence will continue to be vital in promoting and supporting Indiana’s growing international presence.

By Kate McCarter, Protocol Intern