28 votes

What cultural misunderstandings have you experienced?

I work for a school in China and they are going to have an art festival soon. Today they were setting up some of those pictures where you can stick your face in it and take a photo. They did this to The Last Supper and it’s a very big picture set up right in front of the main gate for all the children to play with. They cut out Jesus’ face and most of his disciples’. All of the expats that work for my school were outraged and told the administration to take it down right away. At first the administration said they would just glue Jesus’ face back on. But this just made people angrier, so they promised to take it down in the morning when they could get some workers to do it.

So what cultural misunderstandings have you experienced? How did you deal with it?

27 comments

  1. [11]
    vakieh Link
    I once went to a business meeting in Japan. I am Aussie, and was there in a technical role for answering questions - my instructions were to the tune of "this deal is literally worth more than...

    I once went to a business meeting in Japan. I am Aussie, and was there in a technical role for answering questions - my instructions were to the tune of "this deal is literally worth more than 1,000 times what you earn per year (and I was not that cheap) so sit there quietly and shut your mouth unless asked a direct question". The deal involved a software system in the finance sector and the companies involved were all banks or otherwise finance megacorps.

    There is a custom in Japan to hand business cards (perhaps everything? Not 100% clear there) with 2 hands else it is disrespectful. Everyone involved, including myself, was to do a round robin of card exchange with everyone there before we sat down for drinks, snacks, and discussing the software deal. The cards were then laid out in a horseshoe in front of you lined up with the direction of that person on the table, so you can keep track (it was a meeting with like 12 people). We were all given training on this process before we were allowed to go to this meeting. Unfortunately you cannot train for everything.

    I was the technical person sent from Australia, and we met up with a group from a software development contractor from India that had won the initial tender to develop this software for us when we landed in Japan. The contractor's people were also given this training. We met the people from Japan, and the exchange went off without a hitch, including the contractor people. I got to sit there nervous as fuck and trying not to draw any attention to myself.

    Now, I have met a great many people from the subcontinent, and I know there are people from there who are fantastic in every way - I keep in touch with plenty. But culturally speaking there is a VERY different norm, and for people who have never spent much time outside the country this obviously influences their behaviour. The gaffe that ensued is something that I have nightmares about to this day - second hand cringe factor is off the charts.

    After some snacks, the lead from the contractor's group thought it was perfectly ok to pick up the business card of the CEO of the Japanese company, and use it as a toothpick in full view of the table.

    The Japanese contingent saw this and immediately switched from English to speaking very quickly in Japanese. The head of our group saw this, turned and saw what the lead from the contractors was doing, went white as a ghost, and grabbed him out of his chair and dragged him outside the restaurant. The deal ended up going through fine, but that contractor was not involved... Would have cost them at least 100 ongoing full time positions, maybe double that.

    34 votes
    1. [4]
      weystrom Link Parent
      That's not even a cultural misunderstanding, just bad manners.

      After some snacks, the lead from the contractor's group thought it was perfectly ok to pick up the business card of the CEO of the Japanese company, and use it as a toothpick in full view of the table.

      That's not even a cultural misunderstanding, just bad manners.

      21 votes
      1. NecrophiliaChocolate Link Parent
        Its kind of hard to blame them completely though. Within some places of India that can be considered the norm. I think the lead contractor was dumb to not realize the importance of the business...

        Its kind of hard to blame them completely though. Within some places of India that can be considered the norm. I think the lead contractor was dumb to not realize the importance of the business card to the Japanese, but it might have just been a simple memory lapse and instinctively revert to the norm back home. Like I still think he deserves 95% of the blame.

        7 votes
      2. diode Link Parent
        Aside from the implied disrespect, I personally don't consider picking your tooth as bad manners.

        Aside from the implied disrespect, I personally don't consider picking your tooth as bad manners.

        2 votes
      3. the_walrus Link Parent
        I was halfway though typing the same comment when I saw yours. How can someone be so unaware?!

        I was halfway though typing the same comment when I saw yours. How can someone be so unaware?!

        1 vote
    2. [5]
      gpl Link Parent
      What's the thought process here from the Japanese side? Evidently they would want the deal to go through too and wouldn't let it get jeopardized by a rude contractor. Do you think there was a...

      What's the thought process here from the Japanese side? Evidently they would want the deal to go through too and wouldn't let it get jeopardized by a rude contractor. Do you think there was a serious chance of it falling though because of that?

      Funny story regardless. Reminds me of the episode in Seinfeld where Lippman won't shake the Japanese CEO's hand because he sneezed and the merger falls through.

      5 votes
      1. [3]
        Pilgrim Link Parent
        My takeaway from a Japanese business class is that the Japanese don't make "deals" like American's do: For them it's not about a single transaction but about a larger relationship. Would you want...

        My takeaway from a Japanese business class is that the Japanese don't make "deals" like American's do: For them it's not about a single transaction but about a larger relationship. Would you want to have a long-term commitment to a group of people who couldn't be bothered to learn your very-important-to-you customs or who vette the people in this very important meeting so poorly that a slip-up like that occurs?

        Please know I recognize that something I learned in a college class 20 years ago may be off base today but I thought I'd share my possibly outdated and largely minuscule experience.

        16 votes
        1. [2]
          gpl Link Parent
          This actually makes much more sense than I would have expected. I wonder if business deals made with this thought process are longer lasting than purely mechanical counterparts.

          My takeaway from a Japanese business class is that the Japanese don't make "deals" like American's do: For them it's not about a single transaction but about a larger relationship.

          This actually makes much more sense than I would have expected. I wonder if business deals made with this thought process are longer lasting than purely mechanical counterparts.

          6 votes
          1. Pilgrim Link Parent
            It would seem that this sort of "family capitalism" as I believe it's sometimes called can be preferable. Here's a pretty good indicator IMO: Source:...

            It would seem that this sort of "family capitalism" as I believe it's sometimes called can be preferable. Here's a pretty good indicator IMO:

            how well suppliers and automakers work together varies widely, and a new study finds that Toyota and Honda have the strongest relationship with U.S. parts suppliers while the situation has actually deteriorated when it comes to Detroit’s Big Three.

            Source: http://www.thedetroitbureau.com/2015/05/toyota-honda-have-best-relationship-with-suppliers/

            5 votes
      2. Silbern Link Parent
        I lived in Japan for two years, and respect matters a lot in Japan. For such a grave offense, I can easily see a CEO refusing to go through with a deal. From their perspective, what's a deal going...

        I lived in Japan for two years, and respect matters a lot in Japan. For such a grave offense, I can easily see a CEO refusing to go through with a deal. From their perspective, what's a deal going to founded on if you're not willing to give them the respect they would to you? In addition, it could be seen as demeaning if they made a deal anyway even after you blatantly disrespected them, and for better or worse, most Japanese people (especially these older CEOs) have an intense aversion to anything that would make them lose face.

        7 votes
    3. floppy Link Parent
      That's pretty nasty anyway, I don't think you have to be Japanese or demand respect to be put off by someone picking the plaque and rotting food matter from his teeth during a meeting, and with a...

      That's pretty nasty anyway, I don't think you have to be Japanese or demand respect to be put off by someone picking the plaque and rotting food matter from his teeth during a meeting, and with a business card, no less.

      3 votes
  2. [9]
    NaraVara Link
    As an Indian, I was never acculturated into the American norm of saying "please" and "thank you" for everything. I moved here when I was 6 and it's been almost 30 years and I'm still not fully...

    As an Indian, I was never acculturated into the American norm of saying "please" and "thank you" for everything. I moved here when I was 6 and it's been almost 30 years and I'm still not fully used to it. On some level saying "please" for routine stuff still makes me feel like I'm begging people just to exercise some baseline level of consideration.

    Saying "thank you" for basic things has become more habitual for me, but when I hear it from others it sounds cloyingly sweet, like someone is groveling or sucking up to me.

    7 votes
    1. moriarty Link Parent
      I hear you. Tourists to Israel often wonder about why people are so angry and shouting at each other all the time. The truth is that the locals are just very open in both showing their...

      I hear you. Tourists to Israel often wonder about why people are so angry and shouting at each other all the time. The truth is that the locals are just very open in both showing their frustrations and their joys, and they're not shy about telling you what they really think about you. You talk to someone on the bus for 5 minutes and suddenly you're the best of friends.
      Conversely, Israelis have a really hard time with American politeness, which is always perceived as fake niceness. "I just wanna know where I stand with this guy," they'll often say.
      After so long I've lived abroad, I learned to appreciate the politeness and kindness, even if it is sometimes fake. But I can't lie - every time I go back to visit, it's like a sigh of relief and a weight lifted off my shoulders because I know exactly how to behave and how to read people.

      6 votes
    2. [7]
      the_walrus Link Parent
      How long did it take you to get the head nod right? After a month in India I still couldn't remember to wobble side to side instead of shaking my head up and down

      How long did it take you to get the head nod right?

      After a month in India I still couldn't remember to wobble side to side instead of shaking my head up and down

      3 votes
      1. [4]
        cfabbro (edited ) Link Parent
        For those unaware: In India it's common to wobble your head from left to right to indicate an affirmative (yes), maybe, express gratitude/thanks, as an acknowledgment, etc... which is sort of the...

        For those unaware: In India it's common to wobble your head from left to right to indicate an affirmative (yes), maybe, express gratitude/thanks, as an acknowledgment, etc... which is sort of the opposite of what's typical for expressing the same in Western countries (head nod up & down). See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EoJ4Bvsq7gQ

        4 votes
        1. [2]
          Kelsier Link Parent
          Funnily enough, I don't think I know anyone who does that (myself included). Infact I heard it first on reddit :p But yeah, some people definitely do it.

          Funnily enough, I don't think I know anyone who does that (myself included). Infact I heard it first on reddit :p
          But yeah, some people definitely do it.

          3 votes
          1. cfabbro Link Parent
            I have never been to India so will defer to you on this one, for sure. But in the video he does say it's more common the further South you go, so I wonder if that might have something to do with...

            I have never been to India so will defer to you on this one, for sure. But in the video he does say it's more common the further South you go, so I wonder if that might have something to do with why you don't know anyone who does it? This is entirely speculation on my part, but it might also be more common in rural areas with less exposure to Western culture (shows, movies, etc) where the opposite head movement is shown to be the norm, as well.

            1 vote
        2. the_walrus Link Parent
          I suppose I should have mentioned this, I didn't think of it. Thanks for sharing!

          I suppose I should have mentioned this, I didn't think of it. Thanks for sharing!

          1 vote
      2. [2]
        NaraVara Link Parent
        I don’t really remember that being much of an issue, but I was bullied pretty savagely for my accent and general foreignness so in those respects I had to adapt quickly.

        I don’t really remember that being much of an issue, but I was bullied pretty savagely for my accent and general foreignness so in those respects I had to adapt quickly.

        2 votes
        1. the_walrus Link Parent
          Aw, sorry to hear that my friend. Thanks for sharing about your experience!

          Aw, sorry to hear that my friend. Thanks for sharing about your experience!

          2 votes
  3. [5]
    babypuncher Link
    I don't have a story of my own. I just want to say I think it's hilarious how upset expats got in your Last Supper story. It's like they are completely unaware that they are in a different country...

    I don't have a story of my own. I just want to say I think it's hilarious how upset expats got in your Last Supper story. It's like they are completely unaware that they are in a different country with a different culture.

    I don't think I know very many people in America who would have such a strong reaction to that same scenario.

    6 votes
    1. [3]
      diode Link Parent
      Go to r/China and you'll see how hateful most expats there are of the country they're in. They're perfectly aware that they're in a different country, they just wish that they weren't.

      Go to r/China and you'll see how hateful most expats there are of the country they're in. They're perfectly aware that they're in a different country, they just wish that they weren't.

      2 votes
      1. [2]
        babypuncher Link Parent
        Pardon my ignorance, but how and why would someone choose to go live in a country that they apparently do not want to live in?

        Pardon my ignorance, but how and why would someone choose to go live in a country that they apparently do not want to live in?

        4 votes
        1. junya Link Parent
          I lived abroad as an exchange student for a year. I thought it was great and I really tried to immerse myself in the culture while I was there. Most of the other exchange students had similar...

          I lived abroad as an exchange student for a year. I thought it was great and I really tried to immerse myself in the culture while I was there. Most of the other exchange students had similar experiences.

          However, one girl that I went to school with did not seem to enjoy her time abroad at all. Learning a new language was too hard and no one was able to communicate in her native language that well. She hated her host families (she had 3 or 4 during her year). The food was meh. Going to class was annoying.

          But as the year went on, she started to give similar rants about her life back home. Her hometown was boring. Everyone she ever knew betrayed her at some point. Her family didn't understand her, etc.

          Eventually, I just came to the realization that she wouldn't be happy anywhere, but I'm guessing she went on the exchange program to try to find happiness. Sometimes I wonder if the hateful expats are similar. I'm sure there's some who are truly having awful experiences that are no fault of their own (I knew exchange students like this too), but for some it has to be a perspective issue.

          7 votes
    2. Fierre Link Parent
      I think it’s funny to some extent as well, but ultimately most of the expats were upset because it’s hypocritical of the school. I didn’t say this because I didn’t think it was totally necessary,...

      I think it’s funny to some extent as well, but ultimately most of the expats were upset because it’s hypocritical of the school. I didn’t say this because I didn’t think it was totally necessary, but my school is a foreign language school. They have over 70 people from all over the world working here and the school is supposed to be about teaching languages and different cultures. Many of the students are expected to study abroad after they graduate, yet they can’t ask the expats what we think about this sort of thing.

      Personally, I think they did nothing wrong. They put up something and didn’t know it would be offensive. Then when they were told it was offensive to some of the teachers. They took it down quickly.

      1 vote
  4. the_walrus Link
    I'm American. I went on a trip throughout India, and there are countless examples of cultural things I didn't understand. There's on in particular that stands out to me. I remember seeing these...

    I'm American. I went on a trip throughout India, and there are countless examples of cultural things I didn't understand. There's on in particular that stands out to me. I remember seeing these black rings hanging on posts alongside the road. They were about the size of a car tire (sometimes they used an actual tire) and they had white lettering painted on. I can't read any Indian languages (I think in this region it was Tamil, specifically) so I had no idea what it said. I wondered if it was indicative of some kind of a club, or a wish of good fortune, or maybe even some religious thing I didn't understand. Eventually when I had the opportunity to ask someone who can read Tamil, he told me that it said "repair." It was just a common way to indicate a vehicle repair shop! We had a good laugh.

    6 votes
  5. moriarty Link
    I used to work in an international research laboratory building and testing particle detectors. Our group was pretty big and split between several institutes, with a big portion being Japanese. In...

    I used to work in an international research laboratory building and testing particle detectors. Our group was pretty big and split between several institutes, with a big portion being Japanese. In one of our conferences we were giving a talk about a the tests done on the detectors prior to installation. They were supposed to be 99% efficient but some of the Japanese detectors were 97% efficient - not a big deal, but is important to know to plan the installation. So in one of the sides my professor showed the efficiency comparison and it's like the room fell silent.
    After the talk he approached some of the Japanese colleagues and they just turned their backs on him. Through the grapevine we later learned that he'd humiliated them in public with that side. They proceeded to not talk to him for the next 2 years. Wonderful people and super professional to work with - I learned a lot from them. But that cultural disconnect still weirds me out to this day.

    6 votes