A Fine Line Between Respect and Insult

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

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?


Reality TV and Cultural Differences

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

If you look close enough, you can find examples of intercultural interactions in almost every aspect of daily life.  This week, I noticed quite a few instances happening in reality TV shows.  The first that came to mind was Wife Swap.  The show began in the UK and a US version quickly followed.

The basis of the show is that two families change wives for two weeks.  The families are usually complete opposites.  At the beginning of the show both families are presented and their lives are detailed, showing their lifestyle from their perspective.  The women go to the other’s house, look around and read the “household manual” which outlines the family’s beliefs, daily routine and rules of the house.

During the first week, the wives must adhere to the rules of the house.  This often causes a lot of conflict and strong reactions.  The families respond with shock, laughter and sometimes outrage as they find the others to be naïve or stupid as the two extreme, opposite points of view clash.  The wives are also able to observe some of the things they perceive to be wrong about the other family’s way of life.  They usually speak with the children and find out how the parents’ decisions are affecting them and what they would like to change.

The second week gives the wives the opportunity to change the rules and enforce some of their own beliefs and ideas.  The wives tell the family about the changes and the family must obey the new rules.  The family is often resistant at first but sometimes comes to see the benefits of the changes and come to a compromise.

At the end of the swap, the two husbands and wives reunite and discuss the changes and what they’ve learned from the others.  Some time later the family is re-visited to see if they’ve incorporated any of the differences.

The show seems to parallel what someone might experience when encountering another country and culture.  The families are encouraged to open themselves up to new experiences and ideas, see a different perspective, and think about their actions and why they do what they do.  The exposure to new ideas helps challenge ones beliefs and preconceived notions about life and the world.  In the end, the two families/cultures influence each other, compromise and find the best of both worlds.

After a quick search on Hulu for other reality shows, the only other one I came across was a show called Battle of the Bods.  On the show, five women appear in front of a two-way mirror.  Behind the mirror are three men who rate the women based on various physical attributes.  The women must try to anticipate how the men will rate them.  If their guesses are correct, they win money.

What struck me as interesting was the differences between what men and women find physically attractive in women.  It seems that beauty values between the genders are different.  When approaching gender as culture, the concept of the show illustrates differences in cultures.

What other reality shows illustrate cultural differences?  Can watching such shows really help us understand cultural differences?


How to Seduce a German Woman

Friday, 18 June 2010

I stumbled across this article on the Playboy website.  Now Playboy is the last place I’d expect to find intercultural advice but there was some advice that I’d never heard before, for example German women are upset by American slouching.  I don’t know if half of this advice is true or not and I’ve hardly studied German culture but I found it fascinating just the same.  Can anyone confirm or deny any of the tips?

Another thing that came to mind was about Playboy.  Although the article is entitled “How to Seduce a German Woman” it could also fall under interpersonal communication between men and women as opposed to simply seduction advice.  Also Playboy has published international editions of its magazines specifically for different countries.  I wonder what, if any, factors they take into consideration when they put these issues together.  Hugh M. Hefner must know something about cultural differences as evidenced in his IMDB biography which states that he “attempted to create and Indian version of Playboy for India, which would feature South Asian women and Indian pop culture articles, but no nudity.”  The magazine idea was apparently rejected but does show that someone has informed him and/or his magazine editors about cultural differences.  Examples such as this just go to show that intercultural issues are present in every aspect of life.


Sex and the City 2 in Abu Dhabi: A Cultural Perspective

Friday, 28 May 2010

Should you give up yourself to accommodate the culture you’re visiting?

Yesterday I went to see the new Sex and the City film and this question was subliminally raised.  The film is set largely in Abu Dhabi and the cultural clash that four women from New York City encounter brings up some interesting cultural issues.  For those who haven’t seen the film, spoilers ahead.

In the film, the women are invited to spend a week in Abu Dhabi, all expenses paid by a hotel owner who is considering hiring Samantha to do PR for the hotel.  Samantha insists upon bringing her three friends along for a much needed holiday.  Samantha approached the trip as a holiday, not a business opportunity.  Although she’s usually portrayed as a savvy businesswoman, in this film she threw caution to the wind.  She didn’t attempt to research the company, the country, the culture, etc.  If she really wanted to land such a lucrative client I would have thought she would have taken the trip a bit more seriously.

Instead, it was Samantha’s friend Miranda who brought along guide books and attempted to speak Arabic.  She supplied a lot of information about the culture as she informed her friends about local fashions: abaya and niqab.  She was also constantly reminding her friends to cover up because it was offensive to show too much skin.

Before visiting a souk (market), a member of the hotel staff warns two of the girls not to pay attention to men selling knockout watches who will try to lure them into a building to buy even more things.  The lack of this knowledge is what gets the other two girls into trouble later in the film.

The climax of their adventure comes when Samantha is arrested for kissing on a beach.  Shortly before that she is seen on a date where she seductively smokes a hookah and puts her hand on her date’s thigh, much to the outrage of a nearby man.  While Samantha’s devious behaviour elicited laughs from the audience in the cinema, it was obvious that she was about to have a problem.  As she and her date walk away to walk on the beach, her date unties her dress from behind and the same man is seen complaining about their lewdness.

Later, at the hotel, it is reported that the many who saw them is very conservative and wants to press charges.  Samantha is later released but she loses her potential client and the girls must leave immediately because they can’t afford to stay.

During one of the final scenes in Abu Dhabi, the contents of Samantha’s purse spill on the ground and the men around are outraged to see condoms lying on the ground.  Samantha takes the opportunity to stand up for herself, proclaiming her love of sex and giving the middle finger.  The film was accurate in that the women hurried away and showed concern that they might be arrested.

The film seemed to insinuate that Abu Dhabi and the conservative people there were the antagonists.  Of course the point of the film wasn’t to lecture on the proper behaviour of tourists abroad and did only show the perspective of its four main characters.  However it would be valid to say that their behaviour was culturally insensitive and audience of this film can learn from their missteps.

According to Wikipedia, “etiquette is an important aspect of UAE culture and tradition, to which visitors are expected to conform” and “the UAE has maintained a strict policy of protecting highly public spaces from cultural insensitivity.”  When we visit another country we must respect and follow the rules of that country.  They may clash with our own values and beliefs and it can be difficult when the differences are so drastic and we are forced to change what some may consider basic aspects of our selves.

In an article from The Hollywood Reporter Cynthia Nixon, who plays Miranda, quoted that the character “Samantha is disrespectful, but Samantha is disrespectful in New York and she is disrespectful in the Middle East and she just really doesn’t care.”  Some may argue that she’s just being herself even if that self is a disrespectful one.  In that case, should she have to give up who she is?  The answer varies depending on your values.  If you feel that you shouldn’t have to give that up, awareness of your beliefs is the first step toward a successful intercultural transaction.  But, in the film, Samantha’s very unwillingness to forego her own desires cost her a client, cut short her holiday and got her arrested.

The bottom line: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.  Or, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and get intercultural training to find out how the Romans do it!

Resources on UAE culture and doing business there:
Dubai Thoughts
UAE Culture


The Ugly [insert nationality here]

Friday, 23 April 2010

We all know the stereotype of the Ugly American.  But are Americans the only ones who are badly behaved when they travel abroad?  Are there other “ugly” nationalities out there?  Are Americans simply more well-known for their bad behaviour and, therefore, take all the attention away from others?

I’m inclined to believe that most nations are aware of how their countrymen behave while abroad.  My British friend has often mentioned the stereotypical British tourist who demands his fish and chips cooked just so.  While on holiday in Britain, one woman mentioned the bad behaviour of Russians while abroad.  My Russian friends agreed with this and said that many are badly behaved while on holiday.

I came across an article on the bad behaviour of Chinese tourists abroad as well as Russians and the British.  I’m sure a thorough search could bring up similar reports on numerous other nationalities.

But why does such “ugliness” occur?  Is it really a matter of people being rude and acting inappropriately?  Or is it a simple matter of two cultures coming together and clashing?  In some instances, tourists are just unaware of local laws and customs.  This can lead to being arrested for violating the rules.  In some places, there are rules against things that we take for granted or never think could possibly be illegal.

This isn’t to say that some people aren’t inconsiderate, ignorant and ill behaved.  But more often than not it seems that people get bad reputations for doing things that come naturally to them when they’re at home.  In the article on Russians, the author comments that Russians never say “sorry” when they bump into you, for example.  The author acknowledges that this happens in Russia and is part of Russian culture and is then carried over when Russians go abroad.  The assumption here is that people should change their behaviour when they travel and adapt it to the host country.  This idea in and of itself reflects our cultural beliefs and notions about how to treat people.  Perhaps not all cultures share our ideas about how to behave while abroad.  After all, where is it written that we have to adapt to them, some might wonder.

So the question remains.  Are tourists really being rude or are they just ignorant of other cultures and various cultural rules?  If the latter is the case, can we really blame them?  International executives are not always aware of the cultural rules of the place they’re doing business.  So should we really expect such specialized knowledge of the average tourist who may barely be able to afford their holiday, let alone a crash course in intercultural communication?  It’s food for thought, and I’d love to hear yours!


Interesting Sign

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Today I was surprised to see this sign on the Tube:

Is it really true?
Has anyone experienced someone else sitting on their lap?
Doesn’t this make Brits uncomfortable?  I know they value their privacy and all…


Observations, Surpises, Differences

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Today I was surprised by:
*How much people smile, how friendly and polite they are.  I was especially surprised by how nice the security guards are who check our bags at museums, for example.  I was taken aback by that and found it strange in comparison with sternness of Russian guards.
*English!!!  I’m still not used to hearing it and wonder how long it will be until I get used to it.  I still say “thank you” in Russian out of habit.
*I’m equally overwhelmed by all the content in English here.  I see signs in English, hear English, see people reading books in English.  I forgot how much I love English and I feel so overwhelmed and want to absorb it all because I know I won’t be around it forever.
*Women dressed very casually.  Before I went abroad this seemed like nothing special to me.  But after living in Russia where you rarely, if ever, see this, now I’m shocked by it.  I saw one woman in a skirt, wearing trainers, carrying a backpack.  The Russian part of me cringed, another part of me laughed at my new reaction.

Today I learned another difference between myself and my Russian friends.  At breakfast we had different ideas about how much food we should eat.  Having ordered a massive traditional English breakfast, I was unable to eat it all and had no qualms about leaving some of it on my plate.  My friend, however, insisted on eating everything she paid for and said that in Russian you should clean your plate.  In my experience, this isn’t necessarily a difference between Americans and Russian in general, but might be more of a personal preference.  Still, I was surprised as this had never come up before.

I observed:
*Many people outside in the parks doing a variety of activities.  They all seemed so relaxed and didn’t have a care in the world.  It’s definitely not an atmosphere I’ve ever found in Russia.  There were people running, eating, sleeping, kissing, sunbathing, stretching, reading, etc.  They all seemed to be in their own little world and no one bothered them or judged them for doing what they wanted.