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Growing up between 3 countries I often found myself in difficult situations, caused by local cultural tolerances to racisms, slang that means different words, hand gestures that offend people in one country but not the other.

There has to be a strategy to minimize embarrassing yourself, and offending other people.

Words that adopted negative meanings because of hostile cultures etc. for example:

  • In South Africa the word "maid" should not be used, as it considered highly racist, instead you should say "domestic cleaner".
  • Looking Zulu king directly in the eye is a great sign of disrespect and can get you killed.
  • In many African tribes men go before woman. To check for danger then call the woman when its safe. Many ethnic Africans consider this true and still do this, opening doors, getting in elevators. They usually get told off but they haven't done anything wrong.
  • Showing your index and middle finger the wrong way around either means peace or "f*** you", but not in all countries.

How do I reduce the risk of creating conflict simply because I wasn't aware of the cultural significance of an action I took or neglected to take?

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    IMO it's too broad. Probably there are some sites or books about cultural differences betweet country X and country Y, but it's impossible to compare the cultural differences of all countries – Dirty-flow Mar 13 '14 at 15:41
  • I think if he takes 'online resource or book' out and replaces it with 'strategy' .. it'd be grounded enough. See my answer. – Tim Post Mar 13 '14 at 15:42
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    What is CW quesion? – Piotr Kula Mar 13 '14 at 15:46
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    There's no reason for this question to be community wiki. If it can't be modified to limit the number and scope of the answers, CW isn't going to fix that. That said, I think this is a perfectly valid question, and can easily be brought into a narrower scope. – Tim Post Mar 13 '14 at 15:54
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    @timPost can you elaborate on how you would bring this into narrow scope? What I see is a really bad question, it actually ia question that can be split up into various subset of question, (e.g. how to deal with cultural difference between asia and europe, or between thailand and vietnam, etc) – Andra Mar 13 '14 at 16:29
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Try playing with your wedding ring and suddenly remembering that doing so might just get you declined for a loan, because men that fiddle with their wedding band are hiding something. That happened to me.

There isn't any single good strategy for this, while you can find certain books that will give you a crash course insight into various cultures, they don't always exist. Remember that you're not just talking about culture, but also popular culture, which is prone to changing rapidly beyond the publication of a book.

Your best bet is to simply ask someone while keeping a low profile as you learn. Don't do things that you think could be construed as remotely offensive. Be politely apologetic if you happen to offend anyone and keep your eyes open on how people interact with one another. What you listed is precisely the types of things you should be looking at.

Thoughts that might cross your mind:

  • Why don't they wave at one another?
  • That's a peculiar gesture to tell a child to come back, don't see that used with adults
  • I notice I'm introduced to people by their profession and first name
  • Wow, not one purse is on the floor in this eatery, they all hang on chairs or hooks

It takes a while, but you begin to build up interesting questions to ask someone that grew up there which will give you greater insights into the culture.

There is one author I'd recommend to anyone that is either going to live in, or do business with several different cultures, Geert Hofstede. Get anything by him where he talks about culture, as what he's describing are fundamental insights that you can put to good use while building your own grasp of a foreign culture. These are the insights that help you know what questions to ask, what behaviors to observe and how you might better keep a low profile until you become a bit more acclimated.

Just do as much research as you can ahead of time and remember that most cultures are forgiving of foreigners that might not be aware of customs that the culture itself realizes others may see as odd.

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  • So where you hiding something? :) I bet it was just nerves :) This is a common expat problem though that is discussed across the internet. Its a serious issue. – Piotr Kula Mar 13 '14 at 15:42
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    @ppumkin Yes, indeed I was, I was hiding the fact that I was super nervous about a loan :) – Tim Post Mar 13 '14 at 15:44
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    About the purse: I once moved my mother-in-law's purse to the floor so I could sit in the seat it was occupying. Turns out, that's the kiss of black-luck-of-death, and it would be all my fault if she met ill-fortune afterward. – Tim Post Mar 13 '14 at 16:29
  • the same thing in Poland. You must never leave your purse, handbag or wallet on the floor! Because money runs away easier that way! – Piotr Kula Mar 13 '14 at 16:33

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