All posts by Bjorn

How to Go from Tourist to Insider In Four Easy Steps

femme afroI hate tourists.  They walk around obliviously, slowing everyone down as they consult flimsy, hotel-issued maps and fuss over pictures in front of every street corner with an assortment of cameras hanging around their necks.  They ask the dumbest questions, wear the most outdated fanny packs and Hard Rock Cafe Roma (This is STOCKHOLM, Stupid) T-shirts and have an odd affinity for cheap, mass-produced crap like glow-in-the dark Eiffel Towers and organic, phallus-shaped chocolate Towers of Pisa.

Some of my hate has to be inwardly directed though, because I have so often been the tourist stopping traffic as I chase down the illegible street map that has blown out of my hands and into the busy street.  Not fun.  And not what your next trip has to be like.  Here’s your fast track to insider status:

Get Religion: Or at least visit something like a church, synagogue, mosque or even a local chapter of a club that you are associated with at home.  These are great places because locals tend to be friendly in them and WANT visitors.  Suddenly, you are no longer an annoying tourist.  Instead, you have been transformed into an exotic guest that they will want to invite home, show all the best places and generally entertain.

Volunteer: Enjoy doing something service-related once in a while?  No better place to do this than while on a trip overseas.  Not only will you feel the satisfaction of having helped people out, you will connect with trustworthy locals who are like-minded and will want to get to know you.  If you are stumped for short-term service projects abroad try woofing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) where you get free food and lodging around the world in exchange for volunteer help on organic farms.

Skip the hotel and Stay at the Home of a Local: This is not as impossible as it sounds.  Don’t despair if you don’t know a soul in your destination country.  Check out www.couchsurfing.org.  The organization has a network of people around the world who let guests crash at their places for free. Membership is great because the idea is you can host or be a guest whenever it suits you.

Forget the Blitz-Krieg Tour: If you want to feel like an insider, there are two advantages to planning prolonged stays in one place as opposed to city hopping.  First, a stay of a couple weeks to a couple months will ensure that you have a rudimentary lay of the land and know the basics like good local eats, the price of a taxi and the time wasters to avoid.  Second, the locals will invest more in you the longer they think you will stick around.  If you are back on the train in a couple of days they won’t even bother learning your name.  If you are there for a few weeks you stand a good chance of forming some relationships and learning to dodge the tourist traps in favor of some authentic local experiences.

A final word:  Generally speaking, people in most places are about as comfortable with you as you are with them.  If you show some real warmth and interest in them, chances are they will reciprocate.  So don’t sit around feeling awkward and out of place.  Insider status is yours for the taking.

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Bjorn Karlman

Getting Hitched? Some International Guidelines…

newly weds - wedding bands

My dad and I were catching up with an old family friend and he was telling the story of how his then-future son-in-law asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  “He took me golfing and didn’t say a word about my daughter.  It was the biggest white elephant in the room ever.  We went the whole day without him saying anything at all relevant to the whole reason we were golfing.  Then as we pulled into my driveway at the end of the whole day,” our friend breaks into a huge smile, “he shows me he’s a good Southern boy and he says, “Jill and I were thinking about getting married.  Do you, uh… do you… I mean… do you think that would be a good idea?”

The awkward suitor was given the go ahead after his stumbling efforts and the incident got a permanent page in family history.  A success story.  But things obviously don’t always go that smoothly.  Most of my American friends probably know someone that dodged family expectations, lavish custom and the accompanying bills and eloped in Vegas.  Some enjoy the notoriety of having done it “my way” regardless of offended relatives and fat Elvis impersonators that will forever mar the $19.99 picture album of their union.

But most people who decide to tie the knot want to do it well.  This is no easy thing, especially if you and your second half are from different cultures.  I am not married so the following are not my tips but rather an assortment of the cross-cultural knot-tying advice I’ve picked up while on the trail:

1) Examine motives: Sorry to start off with something so boring.  It is vital though.  I will never forget the time I was in line for check-in at the Dominican Republic’s Santo Domingo airport.  In front of me was a very boring looking, potbellied, middle-aged white guy with a stunning local girl. I was about to roll my eyes when the woman reached into the old guy’s back pocket and pulled out a passport.  She proceeded to wave it to her friends who all started jumping in delight at the other end of the security barrier.  Joe may have bagged a beauty, but Juanita snagged a passport.  Avoid the marriage of convenience.  Enough said.

2)  If you are going local, don’t go “loco”. There’s nothing more pathetic than a wannabe.  Cultural sensitivity is great and is absolutely advised, but everyone can spot a desperate bluffer.  There is absolutely no reason that you should walk around in your future spouse’s national costume for days on end just so you can be accepted as “one of them”.  You are different, you are from somewhere else.  Own it.  It’s OK.

3)  Realize that you may never be “good enough”. As much as your future in-laws may like you, there is likely a little part of them that just wishes their son had married one of his own.  This is nothing personal.  Your attempts at Scandinavian midsummer frog dancing are commendable but you will never be mistaken for a Greta.  You will find that everyone, including yourself, harbors some kind of prejudice. Christine Benlafquih, in an article for suite101.com titled “Cross-Cultural Marriage”, makes the point that it helps to find out what some of the commonly held prejudices are in your significant other’s culture. This can prevent nasty surprises farther down the line. Innermost preferences and prejudices aside, your future family will most likely appreciate you and will eventually see you as a person before your nationality.

4)  Talk to others that have done it – Intercultural marriage is never problem free.  It is challenging.  Tamula Drumm, writing for TransitionsAbroad.com, states that although statistically intercultural and interracial marriages have a high rate of failure, many couples make them work. It helps to learn from the success stories of older couples that have had to deal with more cultural disapproval and discrimination but still were able to live happily together.  Ask questions, listen to their stories and learn from their mistakes.

In the end a cross-cultural marriage boils down to the same thing as any other marriage.  Where there is love and a will there is a way.  So relax, enjoy this special time of life and, if all hell breaks lose, there’s always Vegas.

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Bjorn Karlman

Haggle Like a Pro – The Fine Art of Cheapness

typical asian market

It happens all the time.  The minute I approach a vendor at a marketplace in Mexico, Cuba, Thailand, wherever – the price shoots up drastically.  It is as though as a foreigner I either have to to endure being ripped off or prove my mettle as a haggler.  If you have shopped anywhere other than home in a setting where price setting is flexible, you know what I am talking about.  The hiked-up prices can either be seen as an insult or as a challenge.  Choose the latter and try the following steps to walk off with great deals:

1.  Refuse whatever the first price offer is, even if it sounds like a bargain by your home standards.  This is the beginning of the dance and even the vendor himself will be disappointed if you bow out and pay full price.

2.  Say that you can buy the same thing anywhere else for far cheaper and suggest a price that is 30% of the original price (It helps to read your guide book and find out the going rate for things; make sure your offer is a little below the going rate).

3.  Smile and laugh at the vendor as he starts to make you sound special.  (This happens in different ways depending on where you are.  In the Philippines you will be referred to as “my pren [friend]”.)  In most places you will be told what price the vendor is willing to offer “just for you”.  The price will only have gone down slightly at this point.

4.  By now the vendor will know that you are on to his tricks.  This is your time to shine.  Try: “I am not a rich American, that price is crazy.  Give it to me for (40% of original asking price).  I’ll send all the dumb tourists your way.” If you can muster it and if local culture is reasonably tactile, make some kind of physical contact at this point – shake his hand, put your arm around his shoulder, give him a fist bump… this will reinforce what you are saying.

5.  Tactics will now change.  The vendor, if he has not yet caved, will tell you that he would be robbing himself to give the item for your suggested price.  He will also begin referring to his latest offer as the “final price”.

6.  Play by his rules.  Counter by saying that your latest offer is your final price and deliberately let your eyes wander to other vendors with similar products at the market or make reference to another stand you’ve seen with far better prices.

7.  The vendor may give in at this point.  If he doesn’t, you have a choice: If the price he is offering is acceptable per the going rate, buy the item. But if he stands his ground and the price is still too high, smile, shake your head and say, “Sorry, too much for me,” and confidently walk off.  I can’t overstate the need for confidence as you do this.

8. Chances are you will be called back as soon as he thinks you are serious about walking out on the deal.  Generally, some kind of deal is better than no deal, especially when a tourist has dollars.  If the vendor can give you a bargain, he will at this point.

If these steps do not work and you are not called back, there are generally other vendors selling the same thing close-by.  Persistence will get you a deal.  Better yet, send a local friend on her own to buy the item.  She’ll get a fair price.

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Bjorn Karlman

‘Fess up Anywhere: International Apologies

Feeling like an ass?
Feeling like an ass?

It’s awkward.  It’s painful.  It’s often necessary:  Apologizing is something we all have to do once in a while.  It can be hard enough to do at home but what to do when, (and this really happened to a friend of mine in Argentina) instead of telling your seatmate on the 7-hour bus ride that it is really hot on the bus, you tell her you are seriously turned on?  At times like these it helps to know how to ‘fess up quick and change the subject before people move seats to avoid the disturbingly randy foreigner.  Here are some ‘fessing up tips for a few key quandries:

You’ve accidentally promised a family member in marriage to an African tribesman: A friend of mine had a jokester  of a dad who thought it would be funny to offer her hand in marriage while they were visiting a village in East Africa.  All was good until the local family began to make arrangements for the actual union.  My friend was horrified.  Her dad was never completely forgiven.

Solution: Quickly acknowledge your mistake.  Blame it on a terrible misunderstanding (to be fair, it really is) and get out of there.  This kind of situational agony is not something you want to prolong at all.  Apologize and take off.

You’ve been too blunt and given a British co-worker a little too much of your mind: A secretary had just been rude and dismissive to visiting members of the international press at the organization I worked at just outside London.  As the Public Relations officer, I lectured the offender and told her that she could never do that again.  She was mad at me for weeks and accused me of being “too American”

Solution: Use foreigner status to your advantage:  I completely milked my status as a recent arrival from the US and assured the offended biddy that it would never happen again.  She was far less annoyed when she realized that even if I was as rude as any other Yank, I could out-apologize a Brit.

You’ve blown a fuse and slammed a door in an Asian business setting: A Western construction manager friend of mine got so frustrated at a meeting with a subcontractor that he stomped out of the room and slammed the glass door behind him so hard it shattered.

Solution: Get out quick.  You’ve already gone too far and everyone has gone into face-saving (preservation of honor/dignity) mode.  Inform your boss as you have no doubt lost face for your entire organization.  Let the incident pass and sincerely apologize later both in writing and in person.

You have just told a Latin American that their national soccer team sucks: This really happened:  In 1969, a four-day war broke out between El Salvador and Honduras.  The spark that started it?  Rioting that took place during a qualifying round for the 1970 FIFA World Cup.  Do not underestimate the power of soccer to piss people off.

Solution: Don’t even bother saying anything.  Run like the wind.  Do not stop, do not pass “Go”, just get out.  Life is more precious than honor.  Soccer hooligans are crazy.  Deaths from clashes among fans from opposing teams are too common to be taken lightly so if you sense danger, trust your instincts and take off.

A parting thought:  Don’t over-apologize.  Sincerity is all that is required.  People typically have a certain degree of patience with a newbie, so acknowledge your mistake and then move on.

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Bjorn Karlman

Grin and Bare It… Topless Culture Change

Topless - summer beach conceptIt was hands-down one of the funniest things I had ever seen on a beach.  I was with a friend in Nice, on the French Riviera, surrounded by locals and tourists in various stages of undress.  Not far from me were a couple of topless girls and local etiquette stipulated that everyone had to act like everything was normal.  And, for a French beach in the summer, everything basically was.  Well, at least it was until a group of American teenagers, in predictable khaki shorts and baseball caps, came over and struck up conversation with the topless ones.

The guys’ intent was clear: they wanted a picture with the women.  Amused at the ballsy request, the women obliged the horn dogs and posed with their newfound American friends.  The guys were delighted but conversation quickly dried up because of the language barrier and they took off.  The best part was when one of the guys hollered, “Y’all keep it up now!” over his shoulder.  Beautiful.

The young guys’ break with etiquette was amusing.  If they had been locals or at least somewhat accustomed to Mediterranean protocol, they would have been considerably less eager with their photo requests.  Everyone came out of this one well – the nervous kids, the nonchalant boob models and the amused onlookers.  Observing the whole incident made me think about the huge role of cultural rules in the day-to-day – right down to beach attire and how to acknowledge topless strangers.  It also made me think of what allows us to bend the rules of culture (in this case, approaching topless women) and test the boundaries society decides are appropriate.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “The Tipping Point” identifies the drivers of societal change as Connectors (social magnets that are master networkers and love nothing more than working a crowd), Mavens (information specialists, people that have the information society needs) and Salesmen (Charismatic, persuasive people that can get people to agree with them).  When all three kinds of personalities come together and benefit from a strong message and favorable circumstances, you get enough traction to affect major societal shifts.

Watching the kids I saw each of the personality-based change agents.  There was the Connector – the kid in the group that probably was the reason they were all on the beach, skipping the assigned lecture on Franco-Spanish relations. Then there was the Maven – the pervy nerd who’d worked out what stretch of beach would yield the best topless odds. And finally, there was the Salesman who talked both his friends and the busty French into posing for the camera.

So there you have it:  a little example of how cultural change, however insignificant, can be achieved. Whenever cultural rules feel rigid and overbearing, remember that with some clever planning, some key leadership and a little luck, rules can bend and boundaries can shift.  And there’s nothing that some teenage spunk and some multicultural levity can’t fix.

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Bjorn Karlman

Rudest Cities on the Planet

Angry driver with dollar bills.
Rude in any language: Moneygrubbing taxi drivers

Get any two world travelers bored enough and they’ll start trading war stories about the rudest cities they’ve ever visited.  This, of course, is a classic exercise in one-upmanship. The first guy will make his obligatory point about the obnoxious Parisian shop keeper he met: “he spoke English perfectly but wouldn’t help me.”

The fellow traveler will counter with some horror story about being cut off right by the turnstiles for the Hong Kong MTR  (Mass Transit Railway), getting elbowed while boarding her train and then pickpocketed – all on a simple two-stop trip to Kowloon Station to catch her airport connection: “They even stole my ticket!!”  The back and forth can continue for huge stretches of time.

I wanted to get past the hearsay and the anecdotes so I was intrigued when I came across a Reader’s Digest (Canada) article titled “How Polite Are We?”. Reader’s Digest tested people’s politeness by sending undercover reporters, 50% men, 50% women into 36 cities for the following three tests:

“• We walked into public buildings 20 times behind people to see if they would hold the door open for us.

• We bought small items from 20 stores and recorded whether the sales assistants said thank you.

• We dropped a folder full of papers in 20 busy locations to see if anyone would help pick them up.”

A full scientific test was not attempted by the study but it was the largest of its kind ever attempted. Every positive outcome was awarded a point and negative outcomes got no points.  A city could score a maximum of 60 points.  Here were the five lowest scoring cities:

[TABLE=2]

Reporters had stories to illustrate rudeness in the low-scoring cities.  In Mumbai:  “When our female reporter bought a pair of plastic hair clips at a convenience store, sales assistant Shivlal Kumavat turned his back on her as soon as she had paid. Asked why, the 31-year-old was unapologetic. ‘Madam, I am not an educated guy. I hand goods over to the customers, and that’s it.’ ”

“When an affluent-looking lady in her 40s failed to hold a door in Moscow’s Prospekt Vernadskogo, she chided us: ‘I’m not a doorman. It’s not my job to hold doors. If someone gets hurt, they should be quicker on their feet.’ ”

There were, of course, other stories, but even more interesting were the top scorers:

[TABLE=3]

Looking suspect yet?  I would suggest that the rationale behind this survey is the same that leads to tourists thinking that a city is rude and obnoxious:  a foreign set of cultural expectations are applied to the local scene to determine politeness.  Case in point: the door-holding test is unreliable as there are parts of the world, particularly parts of Asia, where holding the door for others is not necessarily considered a sign of politeness.  It is no surprise then, that Western cities like New York and Toronto scored highly and cities like Mumbai and Kuala Lumpur fared far worse.

Want to have positive experience in a new city?  Do your homework and know what to expect. Just because your own cultural niceties are not commonplace doesn’t mean that people are intentionally being rude to you.  So take courage, hop on the subway and throw some elbows.

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Bjorn Karlman

How to Tell Anyone, Anywhere That They Are Not Funny

2477I’ll admit it: I am terrible at telling jokes.  I’ve got two or three reliable ones but even they fall flat with alarming frequency.  I always mess something up.  I forget the punch line; I omit a key detail; I forget where I am and tell a joke that only works in Sweden – you get the picture.  I could live in denial and make believe that peoples’ laughter comes from them laughing “with” me as opposed to them laughing “at” me, but my friends have disabused me of any such thinking.  They’ll try to assure me that I can be humorous in a very general sense but then they get a serious look on their faces and say, with all the love they can muster, “But I really don’t get your jokes.”  Now let me be clear:  I have not only been told this in one country: worldwide friends have told me one way or another to steer clear of the jokes.  As I have picked myself up and dusted myself off each time, I have taken note of how people around the world tell you that you are not funny.  Here’s my guide – region by region – to telling anyone, anywhere, just that:

Scandinavia

Hit them straight.  Scandinavians are fairly direct in their communication style.  “I don’t understand” is fine if you really don’t get it.  If you are friends with a Scandinavian you can be even more direct: “That wasn’t funny at all”.  Scandinavians are used to this as their brand of humor is, to say the very least, different.  And it goes both ways, they will tell you that your jokes suck without blinking an eye.

United Kingdom

A little more tact may be in order.  I personally think Brits are some of the funniest people on Earth and love the likes of Ricky Gervais (British version of “The Office”) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat). Some people really do not like British humor though, and it’s OK to say so.  Brits love apologies (sit in any British train station and listen to announcements about train delays or cancellations: The announcer will apologize for EVERYTHING) so try, “Sorry, I think this British humor is a little over my head, give me a few weeks and maybe I’ll pick it up…”  Of course, if the intent is to avoid hearing any more from the amateur comic in question, don’t invite them to keep trying out their material on you.

United States

Laugh.  Americans are a tough bunch to speak for in any general sense because of the sheer diversity in represented cultures.  But warmth goes a long way, so show some appreciation for the fact that your American friend was trying to be funny.  If you are from a more reserved culture, realize that while people in some cultures communicate through understatement (the Brits are a perfect example), Americans often communicate through over-statement.  They may say something is “the funniest thing ever” or “the most hilarious show I have seen in my entire life”.  They probably don’t mean it. Smile enthusiastically, laugh a little and then switch the channel to FOX News – it won’t be funny at all.

South America

When I lived in South America I met some people that I found really funny and some people that made me want to take a fork to my eye.  Naturally, the cultures I came across – Peruvian, Argentine, Uruguayan, Brazilian, whatever – all came with their own brand of humor.  Most of the humor I came across was delivered with high volume, enthusiasm and a lot of passion.  Trust me: You looked like an idiot if, after the punch line, you just sat their and scratched your head.  So here’s what I did: I laughed at everything and then, if I didn’t get it, turned to local friends and whispered, “Why was that funny?”  South American communication stresses diplomacy and warm interpersonal relations so if I did admit to not finding something funny, I first made sure my relationship with the joker was established and safe.

Asia

Bluntness is a bad idea in Asia.  Throughout my childhood in Hong Kong and the Philippines,  I heard stories of rude, clumsy foreigners and their embarrassing antics. Communication had to be indirect, polite and always had to allow for the other party to “save face” (maintain dignity/honor).  So you did NOT tell people they were not funny.  I felt that some of the best communication in Asia happened through careful situational maneuvering.  So, if someone is not funny, smile at their overtures and then tell some of lamest jokes you know in a long, agonizing sequence (explain them as being really funny where you come from so as to avoid looking facetious).  The original offender, so completely bored by your bad jokes, will likely never try to tickle your funny bone again.

One last word – humor, if culturally appropriate, is extremely effective in communicating and problem-solving across cultural barriers.  So if you are traveling or if you are meeting with people from different parts of the world, pay special attention to what they find funny.  A shared laugh covers a multitude of cultural missteps and blunders.  Often, the first sign that you are accepted by people is that they start joking with you.  So let loose and laugh with the people you meet.  And when you come across the obligatory bore with his tired jokes, smile, remember where you are, and tell him what he needs to hear, how he needs to hear it.

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Bjorn Karlman

Straight Talk: Sin or Virtue?

Lips zipper 2I had been away from Asia for several years when I returned on a business trip in 2004. By my second or third meeting in Bangkok, it was clear that “getting down to business”, “straight talk” and a Western “no-nonsense” approach to negotiations were not going to fly. Meetings started with a shockingly robust round of pleasantries by American business standards. In fact, it seemed that the actual “business” portion of the meeting was limited to very brief statements, sandwiched between a prolonged inquiry into how my colleague and I were enjoying Thailand at the start of the meeting, and another succession of questions and suggestions at the end as we covered how best to entertain ourselves in Thailand for the rest of the trip. My host did a superb job of making sure everyone felt at ease and there was a sense of harmony to the meeting that I had rarely witnessed in the Western “cut-to-the-chase” business etiquette that I was used to.

I can’t say that I have a definite preference when it comes to approaches to business etiquette. I can definitely appreciate the Eastern prioritization of group harmony over directness. I really enjoyed my time in Bangkok and from a business point of view, the deals we were able to negotiate by playing by the local rules proved to be very lucrative successes. On the flip side, straight talk can be enlightening because it minimizes the guessing game. I was raised by Scandinavian parents that encouraged clarity in communication to the point of bluntness. They felt that this kind of communication was honest and correct. I have countless examples of how openness and directness, however uncomfortable they may be in the short term, end up saving a lot of time and heartache in the long run. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, on his website The Welch Way, claims that candor is a principle of business communication that is necessary and helpful in any work context, anywhere – a veritable one-size fits all.

This is where I beg to differ. Millions of dollars are lost every day on business deals gone south because we as humans seem only to think about communication in terms of what is culturally accepted in our societies. We know, in theory, that people communicate differently in different parts of the world, but habits are hard to break. It seems that subconsciously, we expect others to see relationships and communication the way we do.

As a result, cultures that believe group harmony to be paramount may come across as evasive and even dishonest in cultures such as those of North America and Western Europe, where directness and clarity are the guiding force. On the other hand, Western candor often comes across as bullish and rude in many Asian countries and can be alienating to the point where deals collapse. AsianAmerica.net, an online service to promote cultural, educational and economic ties between Asia and North America, puts it like this: “It is estimated that more than half of all international joint ventures fail within two or three years. The reason most often given is cultural myopia and lack of cultural competency – not the lack of technical or professional expertise.”

There is no magical third way to completely avoid this clash of communication styles that leads to business disasters. Do your homework before you take off on international business trips or before you start negotiations with anyone from a different culture. What will their expectations be in terms of etiquette and what can you expect from them as far as their communication style?

Asian.American.net says “Customizing the learning experience is the most effective way to address specific issues and objectives and maximize the impact cultural competency can have on the company’s bottom line. In today’s global marketplace, being culturally savvy is no longer just “nice to have” but a key ingredient in building and maintaining a competitive global advantage.”

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Bjorn Karlman

Same-sex Smooching

FriendsThe “beso”.  It was one of the hardest things to get used to when I moved to Buenos Aires. Hetero men and women would greet others of the same sex with a kiss on the cheek.  My Argentine friends found it hilarious that on top of my gaffes in learning Spanish (I once asked for the local “place of pleasure” instead of asking for apartment storage space), I almost cringed whenever it was time to greet guys.  It was reminiscent of my freshman days in college when I had to force my reserved Scandinavian self to greet American classmates with hugs and loud, enthusiastic banter.  But the “beso” was even more of an invasion of space.  Luckily I’d had practice with the French “bisou” (kisses on both cheeks for the opposite sex) while studying in France so I had the mechanics down.  But the fact that men were involved was unsettling.


It should be said that the mere fact that straight men kissed each other in Argentina did not at all mean that they were effeminate in other ways. In fact, Argentine culture in general seemed to encourage alpha male behavior, complete with near-belligerent cursing and heckling in the stands at soccer games.  The “beso” was simply an accepted way to greet people, whatever their sex might be.

Of course, same-sex kissing is not at all limited to Argentina, a lot of cultures find the practice perfectly normal. South Eastern Europe and some countries of South Western Europe, Latin America and the Middle East find it completely acceptable.  In the Middle East (with the exception of some moderate Islamic countries) it is more acceptable for men to kiss each other on the cheek than for men to kiss women on the cheek in public.  (A topic for a different post would be Arab male-on-male hand holding that had George W. Bush feeling a little uncomfortable when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was visiting the US).

How do you adjust to something like same-sex kissing if you are from a different culture?  Dive in.  It’s just like language learning – you learn best by immersion.  In my case, I had to force myself the first few times.  Then the beso got easier.  It never felt completely natural but it certainly did not bother me after a few weeks of greetings.

The challenge can be to avoid Borat-scale awkwardness by remembering where you are. When I met my former Spanish tutor from Buenos Aires on a trip to Paris in May, the beso was gone, replaced by a hug.  That same greeting between old friends, if it had taken place in Northern Europe, could well have been a simple, if somewhat prolonged, handshake.  The problems creep in when you plant a manly kiss on Bubba at the Indy 500.  That could warrant a royal kicking of an entirely different set of cheeks.

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Bjorn Karlman

Global Blue Balls, Mapping Sexual Frustration

Switch OFF

It’s official: the most sexually frustrated people on earth are the Japanese.  In a global survey on sexual well-being by condom maker, Durex, only 15% of the Japanese reported feeling sexually satisfied in life. Nigeria led the way for highest sex life satisfaction with 67% of respondents reporting positively and Mexico came second with 63%.


A little bit of healthy skepticism about these results would not be out of place. Chinadaily.com.cn, takes on the Durex research in an article titled “LET’S (NOT) TALK ABOUT SEX, BABY.”  In the article a Chinese sexologist disputes Durex findings in China saying that they mainly surveyed people in economically developed, coastal areas that could afford internet access.  He argues that because of this, Durex’s survey is not representational of the overall Chinese population. Despite this caveat however, the article seems to think there is truth to the survey: “..the Chinese have sex much more often than the global average but are still too shy to talk about it with their partners… That may explain why only about 24 percent said they often experience orgasm, half the global level.”


Is this Chinese reserve reflected by other Asian countries?  In a study headed by University of Chicago academic, Edward O. Laumann, the idea of sexual dissatisfaction in Asia is reinforced, again with Japanese sexual dissatisfaction leading the pack.


An NPR article commenting on Laumann’s findings summarized them by stating that “couples in Western countries are the most sexually satisfied, while countries in the East appear to be less satisfied.”  Also: “Asian countries all reported low levels of sexual satisfaction and moderate to low levels of satisfaction with their relationships and the importance of sex.”


Sound like Western libido imperialism?  Maybe I’m just being defensive because I grew up in Asia but I really feel uncomfortable with these findings.  What do you conclude from them?  It’s easy to pontificate on possible reasons for low Asian libido.  Some would go the route of Chinadaily.com.cn and say that cultural reserve in communication is responsible.  Cultural taboos about discussing sex and individual needs and preferences may be blamed.  Others may claim that the sex score cards are lowered by lopsided gender relations in these countries, that male dominance negatively affects sexual satisfaction.


It looks like nothing conclusive can be said right now.  Laumann’s original article states “Given the substantial, and observed differences in sexual attitudes, practices, and sexual well-being between “East” and “West”, we suggest that future research could fruitfully investigate cultural and structural causes of this variation.” Until then, an extended Nigerian trip and a stint in Mexico may be advisable.


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BJORN KARLMAN