Beware of Cultural Differences for Writers or Travelers

This entry is part 7 of the series International English

thumbsup african kidWhen writing about different cultures we need to realize that in some situations, the culture, standards, code of ethics and traditions are completely different. Don’t just presume that because you would do a thing one way, so will all other cultures. See below for some cultural differences to watch out for. 

It is important to have local contacts who belong to the country you're writing about who can advise or correct you. Click To Tweet

Eating and Business

When Germans want to discuss businesses they do so inside the meeting room, or before or after a meal; they will never talk about it during the meal. In South Africa business men commonly take associates out for a meal to discuss business.

Japanese people exchange business cards with a fair amount of ceremony. The card is seen to represent the individual, so it is treated with respect. In South Africa you hand out a business card if you want someone to have your contact details. So if your key character is travelling to Japan, make sure he has plenty of business cards, with a Japanese translation on the other side.

In Australia, it is frowned upon to drink alcohol during negotiations, yet it is the norm in Russia and South Africa.

In Singapore, if you wish to reserve a seat in a food court, all you need do is leave a packet of tissues. In most countries you have to phone or visit and place a reservation.

In Russia, if a man asks a guy if she would like a banana and she says “yes” he must not begin to peel it for her, unless he is romantically inclined toward her!

Manners and Etiquette

In the United Kingdom and many other countries, it is considered manners for the man to stand back and allow the lady to walk ahead of him through the door. In African culture the man always goes first. It is considered a sign that he is protecting the woman by first checking the territory ahead.

In Japan and South Korea, workers will feel insulted if you tip them! They believe they are being paid to do the job. In South Africa it is a part of the bill you receive at the end of your meal.

Since we were little children, most of us have been taught not to spit. However in eastern central Africa, members of the Maasai tribe, spit at each other the same way we shake hands. They also spit on their hands before shaking in case they forget to spit on each other later! Friends and family members travel for miles in order to spit on a new-born!

Westerners teach their children not to slurp their food. However, in China and Japan as well as other Asian countries, if you slurp your soup or noodles it implies that the food is so good you can’t wait to allow it to cool.

We’ve all seen children sticking out their tongue, often accompanied by the phrase “Na, na, na-na-na!” This is seen to be a rebellious or mocking gesture. Yet in Italy, you can be fined, and in India it is regarded as a sign of unbelievable anger. In New Caledonia, sticking out your tongue is wishing someone wisdom and energy! In Tibet, it is regarded as the respectful way to greet a person, and in the Caroline Islands, it is believed to banish demons.

In the Philippines, friends commonly greet people by saying, “Where have you been?” In Western culture it may be considered impertinent, and the answer may well be, “Mind your own business.”

In western countries, two guys or girls holding hands in public indicates a gay or lesbian act. It is normal in India.

Gestures that Offend

The “V” sign for victory, made famous by Winston Churchill in England during WWII, is another one to watch. If you make this gesture with your palm facing inward in Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and several other countries, it is like giving people “the finger.”

Curling the index finger with the palm facing up in the United States and South Africa beckons someone to come closer. But in Slovakia, China, East Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, and many other parts of the world, it is considered extremely rude. And in the Philippines you might even be arrested!

Raise your fist with the index and little finger extended, and in Texas that is the slogan of The University of Texas. In some African countries, it is considered a curse, while in Italy it says your wife is cheating on you. It is offensive in many other countries.

To point with your index finger at something or someone is extremely rude in many cultures, including China, Japan, Indonesia, Latin America, and many other countries.

The Beautiful Gift of Flowers!

The giving of flowers is a beautiful mine-field. Click To Tweet

Carnations are common cemetery decorations in Germany and France.  So if you give a carnation to someone in France, or white flowers to a contact in China, they may think you’re saying, “Drop dead.”

In Russia and Iran, yellow flowers represent hate. In Italy and Brazil, purple flowers are bad luck. Red flowers, especially roses, are intended only as a sign of romance to those in Germany and Italy. In the Czech Republic, all flowers are regarded as romantic gifts.

In some countries, like France and Armenia, an even number of flowers is for a happy time, and an odd number is for grieving.

In other countries, like Thailand and China, odd numbers mean lucky and even numbers can be ominous.

Writers Beware!

Writers may want their character hitch-hiking, so he stands by the side of the road with his thumb up. In the USA and South Africa, that is a sign for wanting a lift. It also indicates all is well. In Japan it can represent the number 5, while in Hungary it means 1 while France thinks it says zero. (I think you’ll agree there’s a world of difference between 1 million and 5 million! (pun intended.) ” However, in Brazil, Germany, Russia, and many other countries, it is a very offensive gesture.

In many countries, a failure to make eye contact suggests that you’re dishonest, or at least shy. In other cultures, it indicates rudeness or boredom. But to the traditional African, it is rude to hold eye contact, as it suggests you are challenging the person. So think twice before you have your characters from across the world meeting one another for the first time!

Of course, not only can these cultural differences present us with a problem as writers, it can also give us story ideas. Have your Russian business man order a strong drink in the middle of an Australian meeting. Or have a woman of high standards that avoids eye contact with a man who suspects her of criminal intent. Or of course, you could always bring in the son of a Maasai warrior who spits at everyone and everything. Or perhaps a sophisticated couple meet their Chinese daughter-in-law-to-be at a luncheon where she proceeds to pick up the bowl of soup and slurp it.

Obviously, some habits and cultures change, and not all country residents will adhere to the cultures. Feel free to comment on any you don’t think are true any more.

And after all that, do you have any other points we cross-cultural writers or travelers should know about? Please leave them in a comment box below.

Other posts on this topic:

Discovering a New English
What’s an Idiom?
Location, Location, Location
Different Words for Common Items
Telling about Countries and Cultures
International Cost of Living


2 comments on “Beware of Cultural Differences for Writers or Travelers

  1. Very interesting article, Shirl. When I’m doing my research for my foreign set books, I always try to make sure I’m being culturally appropriate. In the process I love stumbling across interesting differences between cultures. Fascinating stuff!!

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