Saturday, February 19, 2011

Culturally Clueless

I enjoy stepping out of my cultural comfort zone. It deepens my understanding of people and helps me put their stories into context. It might involve flying halfway around the world and being immersed in a different country, surrounded by a language and customs I am not familiar with. Or it can be something that happens within my own community such as going to a synagogue for the first time to attend a friend's bar mitzvah.

I make every effort to be sensitive to the accepted norms of the culture I find myself in. For example, I might show up at someone's home in China with some pork dumplings I picked up at a local food stall, but when asked to bring something for the social gathering after the bar mitzvah I am clearly going to make a different choice in terms of appetizers. The times I find myself floundering are when I am clueless as to what the cultural norms are.

Soon after Jay and I were married we backpacked through Europe for several months. Towards the end of that trip we spent some time in England, where Jay has many relatives. One afternoon we were visiting some elderly cousins in Sheffield and these kind ladies asked us if we would like some tea. Thinking we were doing the polite thing we both smiled and said that we would love some.

This did not elicit the expected response. Instead of smiling back at us and going to put the kettle on these poor women looked panic-stricken. They both rushed out to the kitchen and we were left looking at each other in confusion. It took us a few minutes to realize that "tea" meant a meal, not just a cup of something hot to drink. They clearly had not expected to feed us and had been thrown off by our enthusiastic acceptance of their offer. This happened thirty years ago and I can still vividly remember the feeling of mortification I had sitting in their living room while they were bustling about in their kitchen. It was a definite case of cultural disconnect.

My introduction to Jay's family provided another culturally clueless moment - one I can now laugh over, but it definitely did not seem funny at the time. There I was, an American farm girl sitting down to a "Canadian, but heavily laced with British tradition" roast beef dinner. I had previously only encountered rural American roast beef dinner, well-cooked throughout and served up in large chunks. (Now that I think about it though the large chunk part probably had a lot more to do with the fact my mom didn't have a knife in the house that could cut anything other than butter than it did with cultural differences.)

Jay's dad sat at one end of the dining room table carving the beef. (Carving the roast at my house was a tad less formal, consisting of my mom standing at the stove in her apron hacking away at the mass of meat while muttering under her breath about the dull knife.) As he held up pieces to slide onto the plates being passed to him I marvelled at the fact the beef was sliced so thin you could actually see through it, something I had not previously realized was possible. More shocking however was the colour of the meat, which ranged from pink on the outside edges to bright red in the middle.

If it had just stopped there everything would have been fine. Cultural crisis could have been avoided. But then I asked a question. It was a simple question really. One that was perfectly acceptable in my own culture.

"Could I have some ketchup please?"

Dead. Silence. Shocked looks all around. I was so clueless I didn't even know what I had done wrong. Jay had to explain it to me after the meal.

My last example is more recent. When I was in China two years ago we were at Diana's grandfather's home. I remember feeling a little nervous before we arrived, not sure what to expect and also not wanting to embarrass my daughter-in-law in front of her family. Diana had been great about letting us know what was expected of us in different circumstances, so I felt fairly confident I could manage not to humiliate either her or myself when we arrived.

We were warmly greeted at the door by the grandfather and various aunts, uncles and cousins. Then we were ushered into the living room, where plates piled high with pieces of juicy watermelon were placed for us to eat. But nobody made a move to sit down. Smiling, shaking of hands, head nodding, more smiles, and a mix of languages filled the room. My North American trained brain took a look around and figured everyone was waiting for the guests to be seated, so I plopped myself down on the couch, thinking I was breaking the ice. Cultural fail.

What it turns out I really was breaking was hundreds thousands of years of tradition. In Chinese culture the oldest person is always seated first. It was one of the few occasions in my life I was actually glad I couldn't speak the native language. At least I didn't have to hear what was being said about me, although the looks on their faces bore a striking resemblance to the "ketchup looks" I had been on the receiving end of all those years ago. Everyone quickly recovered. Well, everyone except me. We went on to have a wonderful evening. This is Diana's grandfather, the person who rightfully should have been seated first, with Karsten and Diana. He gets my vote for best smile ever.


  1. Hoping hubby's family doesn't read thisFebruary 19, 2011 at 7:57 PM

    That reminds me of the first time I sat down to dinner with Dave's family. Dave's mom served stewed plums with the peels left on (gag!), and me, having a very sensitive gag reflex, just couldn't eat them (although I did try). It wasn't a cultural faux pas, but it was a C. family faux pas, I'm sure! I made sure not to make eye contact with anyone except Dave until after dinner.

    Great pic, btw!

  2. I remember the feeling of "cultural disconnect" happening to me many times while I was in Ireland, though I can't think of anything specific at the moment. Its so embarrassing!

  3. These little mix-ups leave great stories in their wake, definitely worth it! My dad always used to say he was "raised to polite" to ever decline an offer of food or beverage when visiting someone, so I would have accepted the tea just as you did.

    I like learning about other cultures/religions too. I haven't had much chance to travel, but working in DC has given me the chance to meet people from all over, most have been happy to talk about their cultures.

    Until I was around 7, I thought everyone was Catholic. One day my best friend told me his family was Episcopalian. At first I thought he was making it up, then I realized I had a lot to learn. =)

  4. PS - I can see a resemblance between granddaughter and grandfather--including their smiles. My poor grandpa once got thrown out of a "holy roller" church for laughing. I guess he wasn't prepared for the differences between it and his Catholic mass..

  5. @Hoping - Ha! I have issues with swallowing things that are the wrong texture too. I was thinking about writing about it next actually!

    @PJ - Yes, it is humiliating to get caught out in a "cultural moment."

    @Ric - Gasp!! Episcopalian! :-) And yes, there is some resemblance between Diana and her grandfather. He is a very sweet man.

  6. You reminds me of the great faux pas Diana and I made when we forst went to the USA. We were invited to a couple's house. In Scotland when one is invited one is always offered something to drink and something to eat like a chocolate biscuit (cookie). So we visited and chatted. We thought that Americans might offer us coffee. Time went by and we were not offered anything. Supper time approached and we thought, "We must be invited for supper". So we sat on and talked on.

    Then the guy asked us, "So what are you having for supper?" We felt so embarrassed! So we said what we would probably have and we said that it was time for us to go. So we left without having had tea of coffee. We had not realized that Americans don't automatically offer something to drink or eat when they have invited one for a visit.

    Strangely enough it never happened with any other Americans. We were always offered coffee or iced tea when we visited people.

  7. @William - That is funny! It is similar to my "tea" story. You must have had many culturally awkward moments when you first arrived in Africa as well.

  8. Ah yes, some place where age is a plus. I'd have done the same thing, I think. :)

    Very funny.

  9. Interesting stories. I am usually well prepared for such things, so I don't have any major faux pas to report. I think in Chinese or East Asian cultures, they generally forgive foreigners such mishaps. It's my first time to hear that "tea" includes a meal, hehe.. Funny, when it comes to Slovenia, we say what we mean and mean what we say. We would offer Turkish coffee to guests, that's most common. But we always ask, because not everybody drinks this type of coffee. We would also offer some other drinks of course.

  10. My favorite cultural clash story comes from my job of teaching English as a Second Language. My class (real beginners) was practicing "polite questions." I told them they could ask how old my children were, but not ask me how old I was because "Americans don't like to talk about age."

    One of my newest students asked me, "Are you fat?" Since at that time I was, I said yes, and that it was alright she asked me that because I was her teacher, but she should not ask anyone else that because "Americans don't like to be fat, so we don't talk about it." She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said: "In my country, people are starving. If you are fat, you are blessed, and God loves you." (This was in the '90's, and she was from Somalia.)

    So what an American would consider an insult was actually a compliment in her culture. I've since lost weight, but I often think about how blessed I still am!

    Barbara M.

  11. @Voie - Yes, how the Chinese respect the old people in their culture is to be admired.

    @MKL - I am glad you haven't had any major faux pas so far. I suspect one or two might happen as you adjust to life in Taiwan though! And yes, I think foreigners are forgiven much by those in Asian cultures. :-) That is interesting about Slovenians being very straightforward. I am hoping to travel through Slovenia this fall and it is always good to know something about the culture beforehand.

  12. @BarbaraM - That is a powerful story. Thanks for sharing it!

  13. I grew up in the U.K. and half my family lives there, so I am right with you regarding cultural differences across the pond. When I first moved here I would refer to a cigarette as a "fag"... that did not go over well. ;)

  14. @Emily- Yes, I can see how that expression might have raised some eyebrows. Kind of like how in Canada whole milk is commonly referred to as "homo".