Ten Things to Avoid When Meeting Someone From a Different Culture
5 November, 2018: We all operate through a set of implicit and explicit social rules, some of which are quite obvious, such as avoiding offensive behaviours and comments when meeting someone from a different culture than yours. Other rules may be less obvious, such as exactly what type of comments are acceptable to make about someone’s country or culture, and when to attempt speaking that person’s native language. Good intentions are of no consequence for any resulting negative effect your actions may have on someone’s sensibilities, nor should they be used as justification or self-defence in the event of an accusation of inappropriate behaviour. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes, and good intentions do not excuse inadvertent insult.
Ultimately, a better understanding of the target culture is the best tool for avoiding inappropriate behaviours and comments when meeting someone from a different culture. You can learn more about specific cultures by reading these articles on cultural practices in Ghana, Italy, the province of Quebec, Canada, and the city of Montreal in Quebec. In the meantime, here is a short list of some top tips you can immediately implement to improve your cultural sensitivity:
What NOT to do when meeting someone from a different culture: tips for cultural sensitivity
1. Imitating (your exaggerated version of what you consider to be) their accent. No matter how excited you are to meet someone whose language you love, please avoid shouting, waving your hands wildly, and/or proclaiming nonsense in a fake, exaggerated accent that may be intended to impress but only, sadly, offends. Example: showing off your loud and melodramatic iteration of the Italian accent or Italian language when meeting an Italian.
2. Serving them (a worse version of) food from their country. One of the biggest mistakes you can make when meal planning for a visiting foreigner is trying to match the quality and taste of their native cuisine. And, think about it, why would they want to travel so far to eat the same food they left behind anyway? They want to try NEW cuisine at their new destination. So if you’re thinking of making them feel more comfortable, at home, pampered…whatever the “good” intention may be—Don’t. Do. It. Example: would you travel abroad to an exciting destination just to sample bland or mysteriously modified food from your country of origin?
3. Trying to immerse them in their culture, through music, film, meetings with their compatriots, or the gifting of cultural artefacts. People travel for a reason—and generally, this reason is to experience something new. They want to be immersed in YOUR culture, so help them achieve that, instead.
4. Asking if they know so and so (whom you randomly happen to know or have met a long time ago) from their country. You’ll excuse me for stating the obvious, but just because two people share the same homeland does not mean that they know each other. Duh.
5. Asking stupid questions (that reflect your massive ignorance of their country and) that you can research yourself online. It is sometimes said that there are no stupid questions. This is not true; there ARE stupid questions. (Just keeping it real.) Don’t ask basic and potentially offensive questions when meeting someone from a different culture. Example: “It must be difficult for you to drive in Africa (implied: the country) with so many animals wandering in the street, right?” Do your homework. And then ask intelligent questions. They’ll make for much more interesting conversation. Also, don’t expect someone who spent their childhood in a certain country to be up to speed on all the political and economic dynamics of that country. Do you know any teenager in your country that is an expert in national policy and socioeconomic trends? Needless to say, children and young adults typically have their heads buried in school, school, school—primary and secondary school, university and graduate school. School, family, and friends are the elements that make up their entire world. So direct your innocent and well-intentioned, “Tell me about the political platforms of the opposition parties in your country,” and “How have import-export economic activities evolved over the last decade in your country,” would be not just irrelevant to your conversational partner, but also an unreasonable question to ask of a person who did not spend their post-scholastic years in their native land. It is a much more relevant question to ask of a person who was a professional worker or spent a significant chunk of their adulthood in their native land.
6. Asking them (especially when they look young) if they miss their family. You probably wouldn’t ask a 40-year-old if they missed mummy and daddy, right? Please keep in mind that regardless whether they are (or appear) 20 or 40 or 80 years old, many travellers (I’m not saying all of them) have cultivated a strong sense of independence and maturity that precludes the neediness associated with children who still live at home and the nostalgia that young adults who cut the apron strings to attend university might have for parental nurturing. So asking an adult man or woman who’s been travelling the world or living overseas for several years if they miss mummy and daddy, no matter that they appear young to you, is like asking your grown-ass boss at work if they miss their parents…(insert looks of confusion). Example: asking your retired neighbour/teacher/taxi driver/other random adult if they miss mama and papa.
7. Telling them they speak English/(another language that also happens to be your native language) very well. Do not assume that just because they have dark skin, an accent, or are from a country you’ve never heard of, it automatically means that English/said-language is not their mother tongue. Example: telling someone from Ghana that they speak English well, someone from Benin that they speak French well, or someone from Peru that they speak Spanish well.
8. Trying to practice their foreign language (if they do happen to speak a different native language than you) by butchering your way through it. While your effort to speak a foreign language is laudable, spare their ears and sensibilities your torturous garbling of their beautiful language. While your efforts may be appreciated or cause amusement for a few minutes, it will quickly outlive its welcome. Ultimately, that’s no way to improve the level of your spoken foreign language, anyway. Take a class, arrange meetings with a language exchange partner, or listen to foreign movies with subtitles. And when you reach a level of fluency good enough to hold your own in a conversation without needing your conversational partner to actually teach you what you need to say, that’s when it’ll be time to go practice on native speakers.
9. Not showing any interest at all in their culture. Everyone has something unique and educational to share about their culture, especially when that culture is different from yours, and you are therefore missing out on a great educational opportunity if you fail to ask insightful questions to learn more about their culture. It could also be taken as a slight if, in a group setting where you meet more than one person from a different culture, you choose to pepper someone from a country that’s popular with tourists such as Greece or France with questions and proclamations of love but completely ignore another person in the group from a less popular tourist destination like Angola and show no curiosity whatsoever about their country. While your reticence may be due to shyness, complete ignorance about their culture and therefore no idea what to ask, or fear of asking a stupid question, remember that practice makes perfect. Get on a smartphone and Google something interesting to ask about, or lead in with an open-ended question that leaves room for personal perspectives and further discussion. Example: what are some major differences you’ve found between the culture here and your own culture?
10. Pretending to know everything, or more than them, about their culture. No one likes a know-it-all, and that sort of arrogant attitude doesn’t leave room for learning…or likeability. No matter how much you think you know about someone’s culture, it’s in your best interest to take a humble approach. No one knows everything, and we can all stand to benefit from a learning experience when we hand over the mic when meeting someone from a different culture and letting them speak—even about things we already think we know all about. The beauty of cultural exchange is broadening your mental horizons and learning about diversity. If you blab on and on about how much you know, in a quest to impress, you not only miss out on these benefits of cultural exchange but may also put yourself at risk of being a bore, a braggart, and a bigot. Example: meeting someone from a different country than you, and they proceed to put you on trial to test your knowledge of random trivia in order to show off how much (more) they (think they) know about your country than you.
This is by no means a comprehensive list for recommendations on cultural sensitivity, but simply a selection of my top tips for avoiding potentially inappropriate or offensive behaviour when meeting someone from a different culture. I am sure some of these points will resonate with you, no matter who you are, and I hope they help us all be more culturally sensitive so that we can ultimately learn more about, appreciate better, and celebrate the incredible diversity we are surrounded by in this wide world.
Do you have any other do-not’s to add to this list? Share below in the comments!