Offend Anyone Anywhere With These Five Simple Screwups

loose gears

I really enjoy it when people get what’s coming to them. Rarely have I found this more satisfying than in cross-cultural situations when some oaf has clearly made no effort to be culturally sensitive and then suffers the inevitable backlash. Case in point: during Nato’s airstrikes against Belgrade in 1999, a Serbian friend of mine was talking about how beautiful the city was when a visiting citizen of one of the Nato member countries helpfully offered, “Well it won’t be when we are done bombing it.” The offender was shunned from that point on.

If you are reading this you probably have as little pity for this clown as I did. But what happens when YOU are the offender? There is a good chance that if you do any kind of mingling with people from other countries, something you say will upset someone. There is obviously no fool-proof way to avoid causing this kind of offense and it is possible to be too paranoid about potential insensitivity. However, there are a few avoidable moves that will frame you as a dimwitted, nationalistic philistine without a cosmopolitan bone in your body. Here they are:

Talking too much about your own country
Yes, if you are an American traveler, you will take an international beating for the reputation Americans have as loud-mouthed, nationalistic brutes whether or not you yourself have done anything to encourage this stereotype. Luckily, Barack Obama’s reversing of George W. Bush’s moronic unilateralism has made today the easiest time for Americans to travel in at least a decade. Talking too much about one’s own country is something that anyone from anywhere can be accused of. When I first moved to the US I was a little too eager to tell people about Sweden. I look back now and I am embarrassed… luckily my American friends where gracious and gave me some time to adjust to the fact that as interesting as Sweden may be, I was now living in the US and could afford to wave my own flag a little less.

Unnecessary Comparisons
This is a screw-up that is very closely linked to excessive commentary on your own country. Sometimes it is soooo tempting on overseas trips or in discussions of international flavor, to compare foreign lands to your own. Steer clear of it. If you have a local guide, they are hoping to show off their country, they don’t need to hear about yours and they certainly don’t want to hear about how your country’s architecture/health care/communication style somehow is better.

Lazy Assumptions
I got a lecture from an Argentine friend when I suggested that refined conversation was, by definition, calm and collected. She completely disagreed. Refinement, she said, did not at all come from the kind of monotone, subdued interaction that I was describing. Animation, energy, passion and dramatic fluctuations in tone and volume were not just OK, they were just as refined as anything I was talking about. I backed right down from my Northern European assumption.

Wimpy Eating Habits
Whenever my family and I visited friends’ homes growing up in Asia, food would appear. Our hosts were often intensely interested in what we thought about their food. I learned very quickly that it was NOT OK to ignore the curry and make comments about the food tasting “interesting.” If you are traveling, embrace the opportunity to try something different. Stick your neck out, puff up your chest and ask for another pupusa…

Being an Island Unto Yourself and Your Own
It’s tricky. You are a long way from home. You are homesick. And the confusing blend of new language, food, customs and beliefs has you wanting to either stay indoors or join a club that exclusively admits your own nationals. Resist this urge to hibernate. Some culture clash is to be expected. If people sense that you have no interest in reaching out and learning about your host country, they are less likely to make an effort with you.

One final word: don’t freak out if you are guilty of any of the above. International interaction and cross-cultural communication of any kind is going to involve a lot of trial and error. If you upset someone, a sincere apology is often all that is needed to move forward and enjoy the process of learning about new ways to be human.

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Bjorn Karlman

11 thoughts on “Offend Anyone Anywhere With These Five Simple Screwups”

  1. and if someone invites you over for thanksgiving (or was it christmas dinner?) do not spend the whole time talking about how much Guam or [insert your own place of origin here] sucks and how there’s nothing to do and how it’s the most god-forsaken place in the world. they will not invite you back… to anything… though they might wave at you from behind the coconut tree that separates your yard from theirs.
    Note: Guam IS NOT the most God-forsaken place in the world. Texas is.

  2. he doesn’t even know where Guam is. if I were invited to one of his backyard bbq’s, I would never admit to writing any of this. I would be completely polite and I would honestly and politely say that Texas was a richly, atrocious, slipshod. I would smile. He would be flattered since he wouldn’t know what any of those words meant.

  3. You should also mention that if you do commit any of the screw ups listed above, quickly scream, “OBAMA!!!!” and proceed to high five everyone around you. All will be made well

  4. Bjorn, amazing site. Journalism is certainly your forte.

    This reminds me of my first day at University. I made the terrible mistake of saying to my very beautfiul new female housemate from Azerbaijan that she had a ‘very unique look’ (which she did btw). This was, in my nervous mumbling, supposed to be a complement.
    ‘What do you mean unique?’ she understandably asked.
    ‘No, its just very different to what I’m used to seeing…’ Clearly, this is where I began to dig.
    ‘In what way…?’ she said bluntly.
    ‘No. You’re very attractive! Don’t get me wrong. I just meant there’s something interesting about your look. You have these very fair characteristics… and it really complements your… darker hair and eyes’.
    She looked perplexed, so I annotated my comments further.
    ‘I mean, its a nice mix. The darker features really complement your fair skin.’
    Still nothing on her face. No real appreciation of the attempted complement. Azeri’s (people from Azerbaijan) I would quickly realise, would not easily blush or yield. I stupidly continued.
    ‘No, honestly. It’s like the ‘best of both worlds’ thing – you have these really attractive European aspects nicely mixed with these really striking Asian features…’

    The straw that broke the camel’s back. Or maybe just the ‘shot myself in the foot’ moment. Either way, she then launched a tirade of verbal abuse at me. Particularly finding the notion that Azerbaijan was in any way ‘Asian’ the most offensive. I certainly was told. I have never offered a girl from the trans-caucasian nations such a complement since. But damn she definitely looked hot angry!

  5. Adam, I have to say that this is probably the most entertaining comment to date on this site. Cultural sensitivity takes on a whole new urgency when you have an attractive housemate launching a torrent of abuse at you… Classic

  6. so is it okay that you instantly offended me by offering up your political observations in the first paragraph? Alienating 1/2 of the population doesn’t seem like a very good marketing tool. Try adding this as the sixth way to offend everyone (offering up your personal observation about religion, politics, and sex).

  7. Thanks for the input Lori. I’d be interested in exactly what you feel my political observation was. I was not intending to support NATO or Serbia by the anecdote, I was simply providing an example of a very blunt and, in my view, inappropriate comment from the “offender”. I was certainly not trying to make a case for or against the NATO bombings.

    I will say that CultureMutt is intentionally opinionated. It was from the start: http://culturemutt.com/archives/category/culturemutt-explained

    Religion, politics and sex are absolutely addressed in the posts. I am not trying to have affect a neutral stance on any of these themes. What I AM trying to do is discuss issues that crop up in cross-cultural relations and find ways to improve this area of communication. I appreciate your feedback because it provides discussion and a counterpoint to what I am saying. So thanks again and let me know if you would like to guest post on CultureMutt.

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