You can spend hours, days and weeks on end studying verb tables, revising nuanced uses of the subjunctive and rifling through vocabulary flash cards, but there is a kind of cultural language that you simply cannot learn through traditional book learning. This is the system of gestures, formalities and behaviours unique to each individual culture. How are you to know, for example, that in China a bow is a much more accepted form of greeting than a handshake without interacting with Chinese people? Admittedly you can learn the simpler aspects through reading about them, but to develop a true ‘cultural fluency’ direct experience is necessary. Here are some interesting, funny and sometimes baffling customs from across the globe:
- Les bises
Although a kiss on the cheek as a greeting is fairly common in many cultures, this is a prospect that terrifies Brits and other Northern Europeans venturing south, who would much sooner settle for the safe distance of a handshake. The situation is particularly complicated in France, where the number of kisses you give depends on which region you find yourself in – just take a look at this map:
- The Italian ‘squillo’
Imagine yourself in Italy and you receive a one ring phone call from an Italian friend. The natural reaction of most would be to call this person back, which is in fact the entirely wrong thing to do, and will leave your Italian friend slightly taken aback. What you just received was a squillo, Italian for ring, and a new cultural phenomenon whereby you are expected interpret the meaning of the call from the context rather than answering. This could be “I’m running a bit late” or “I got your message” or perhaps simply “I miss you”.
- Exchanging business cards in Asia
In many East Asian cultures the business card holds an almost spiritual significance. Your card should be printed in both English and the relevant Asian language, with the host country language side presented face up. Remember to accept business cards with both hands and to spend an inordinate amount of time examining it as if you suspect it may contain explosives – proper consideration of a business card is a sign of respect.
Gestures are a complete minefield when travelling internationally, so be very careful. The widely accepted ‘ok’ symbol (thumb and index finger together) is considered rude in Brazil, and curling your index finger towards you in a ‘come here’ gesture can be mistaken for a goodbye in Southern Europe. For those travelling to Bulgaria, take note that to the Bulgarians a head nod confusingly means ‘no’ and shaking the head side to side means ‘yes’.
- English apologies
Perhaps the most vexing of all these international customs is the British tendency to apologise for absolutely everything, also shared by their Canadian cousins. Perhaps it’s just reflex, but the English will even apologise when you step on their feet on a crowded tube, leaving foreigners utterly perplexed. This apology should not be taken entirely seriously and is simply a way of diffusing an otherwise awkward situation.
As you can see, sometimes vocabulary and grammar is not enough, and some of these customs can be the hardest part of living abroad to master, given that our own are so ingrained in our psyche. Don’t worry about slipping up though, people understand that you’re a foreigner and that these things can take time, and misunderstandings like this always make for funny stories! If you enjoyed reading this, you can find more of the same here, and don’t forget to take a look at our job offers for bilingual assistants in Paris.