A Fine Line Between Respect and Insult

Many people agree that when visiting another country you are a guest and should try to respect the rules of your host country.  This means observing the customs there, trying to speak the language, and trying to understand the people.  But is it possible to go too far when trying to show respect?  When can attempts at respect cross the line into insulting?

The premise for this post came from something I read that said it is insulting to members of the Arab culture for foreigners to wear traditional clothes.  At first this may seem contradictory because a foreign visitor may think that wearing traditional clothes is a way to show respect for the culture and be modest.  After all, tourists are known to get in trouble when visiting Arab countries by dressing immodestly.

But where do you draw the line between showing respect and covering up by wearing modest clothes and wearing traditional garments that belong to a culture of which you are not a part?

Now I can’t recall where I read this and I haven’t been able to find any sources to include in this article.  If anyone can confirm or deny this, I’d be happy to learn more about the topic.

But most importantly I thought it raised a very important point.  While it is very important to learn about a culture and respect its ways, you should also be informed enough not to insult that culture by going too far.

Have you had an experience like this?  What other examples of taking cultural respect too far can you think of?  Is the example of Arab clothing really true?


6 Responses to A Fine Line Between Respect and Insult

  1. While living in India I did purchase and wear several salwar kameez outfits and found it comfortable to do so, though I also wore Western clothes about half the time. I felt as though I had the choice to dress either way as long as I was dressed modestly.

    Indian friends enjoyed dressing me in a sari one time for an engagement party and though the sari isn’t the easiest for the Western woman to walk around it, it was absolutely stunning even though I needed to wear my American sweater underneath for warmth that evening. Since it was their idea, I can only assume that my friends were delighted to have me share their traditional clothing.

    At another party where I wore what I considered my “best” or “dressiest” Indian salwar kameez, I met an Indian woman who wore a rather expensive and attractive pants ensemble that she bought in Italy. She complained a little that she felt out of place wearing this Western outfit, and I think she had genuine doubts about how appropriate it might or might not be for this party. I also realized that my “street market” outfit, much as I loved it, was not of a fine fabric and might have been less appropriate for that party than had I worn something along the lines of her Italian pants suit with its excellent tailoring. But I would have hestitated to do so because it was pants! I wore that same Indian Street Market outfit with its gorgeous polyester scarf quite comfortably to another, more middle-class Indian wedding ceremony and did not feel under-dressed or disrespectful.

    The biggest problem I has was with shoes! I never felt my American shoes matched the Indian dress, and in the few months that I was there, I never found Indian shoes that I really liked and found comfortable enough to wear regularly.

    Disrespect through imitation is entirely possible, even inadvertently. Imagine arriving to a party in another country dressed as a folk dancer! Or say, an Indonesian going to Denver and imagining that he should wear a cowboy outfit! You might have thought this was the traditional outfit, but, well, not exactly for your particular role and position. I am reminded of a friend of mine who, for a Halloween costume party, dressed as his teenaged son with his pants hanging low, baseball cap on backwards, and other features that could be commonly seen among urban US teenagers. It was a funny, gentle mocking, but nevertheless, a mocking.

    • JMS says:

      Thanks for the comment! It definitely depends on which country you visit and the people you encounter there. You also gave some great examples and I enjoyed reading about your experience in India. Perhaps wearing traditional clothing can sometimes be seen as a sign of respect for the culture.

  2. Robert MacDonald says:

    Hi JoAnne,

    Both my parents were Scottish, and although born and raised in NJ, if someone wore a kilt who wasn’t my brand of hyphenated American… I felt it was just to make fun of my ethnic group, which made me angry.

    But if it were at a Scottish games, I took no offense, even if the wearer had nary a drop of Scottish blood!

    I guess it depends on what reason the clothing is worn, the perceived motive, and the reactions of those around me.

    Rob MacDonald

  3. muna says:

    Supporting Robert comment. I come from Dubai and some of my expat friends love wearing the traditional Emirati clothing which make me and others happy. However, if a person decides to wear our national dress then its important that this person behaves according to the values that this dress represents. So if it was just a way to make fun or mock the traditional clothing of the country then its highly disrespectful. Also, wearing the traditional clothes and going to clubs and bars is also unacceptable. moreover, its very important that a person behaves in grace and not go – for example – dancing, running, shouting or going crazy while wearing it.

    one more note on that, due to the nature of the women national dress in UAE, being covered fully and sometimes even the face, certain types of prostitution use it to blend and get interest from the GCC clients. This ofcourse, is frowned upon. :)

    i hope this help.

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