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How to avoid causing offence in a new culture

I think there are four areas of life where expats can make some serious mistakes when it comes to crossing a boundary in a new culture and causing offence. Do you agree?

Man shrugging and holding up hands

Just over 20 years ago, I packed my bags and left the shores of the UK to start a new job in the USA. No sweat I thought, it’s pretty much the same language and culture. We’re not so very far apart, the Americans and the British. In fact, during the first few months my reserved British nature took quite a hammering. So many invites, so many new friends, so many people wanting to know my inside leg measurements. Well, not exactly the latter, but it felt that intrusive, in a friendly kind of way. Some days I felt like hiding in the swimming pool changing rooms rather than walking out on the deck to face all the sun-tanned, fit-looking Californian folk.

All those lovely people, many of whom became really good friends, had such a different view on verbal personal space; we Brits like to keep ours pretty clear and wide, while my new friends in America knew more about me in a week than friends back home knew in 20 years!

Here are the four main areas where you can really “put your foot in it” whn it comes to causing offense, ruffling feathers or just making people from other cultures feel a bit uncomfortable (if you think there are more please do add a comment below):

1. Food

Group of friends eating noodles together

There’s a minefield of food related etiquette from around the world. Ask another expat or local before you eat out what the local eating customs are. For example, in Asian countries chopsticks should never be stuck upright in your bowl, it’s an omen of death.

2. Body language

Business people shaking hands over a deal

From business negotiations to everyday life, gestures can get you in hot water if you mix up your cultures. For example, in the USA a handshake at the end of a meeting signifies that the meeting is over and there is, probably, some accord. In the Middle East, a handshake opens business negotiations.

3. Clothing

Two young women hugging, one in a headscarf

Every expat woman will know that they should cover their head and not bear too much flesh in a Muslim country. But did you know that you shouldn’t wear yellow in Malaysia, that colour is for royalty only.

4. Personal space

Woman holding up hands to show 'don't come too near'

When I lived in Spain, it always used to make me chortle when we’d get to the beach, find a quiet spot and spread our towels and toys around. The whole beach would be empty and along would come a Spanish family and sit right next to us. That would never happen in the UK, but in Spain the beach is meant to be a convivial, fun place so sitting together makes sense. Right? (After a while, we realised it seemed rude taking off down the end of the beach to sit alone, so we quickly adopted the ‘When in Rome’ attitude.)

Have you got any cross-culture faux-pas or differences that you can share? If you do please add them to the comments section below.

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