Dan Heffernan

Culturally Sensitive Courtesy

U.S. Americans are becoming more well-traveled. About 46% of us have a valid, unexpired passport. That’s up from just 4% in 1990! International travel is more accessible to more people, and with our global economy, many now travel internationally on business. Rules around  courtesy have become key when travel increases the volume of contacts between countries.

Here in the U.S., one aspect of our culture stands out as particularly unique, namely, that we’re casual in the way we relate with others, in our way of speaking, in the way we dress, and in our manners, or, sometimes, our lack thereof. I was taught by my parents the basics of courtesy, such as saying “please” and “thank you,” but as I grew older and the U.S. culture became more informal, some of these good habits went by the wayside.

It's a common complaint outside the U.S. about U.S. Americans. I have lived 10 years of my life outside of the U.S. and have observed this first-hand. Some of the complaints were directed at me, so I’m not pleading innocence here. Many of us were not exposed to other cultures growing up, but more and more U.S. Americans are relating and working with people from other countries and cultures. There are unwritten rules of behavior in other cultures which we ignore at our peril.

I’ve been married for nearly 4 decades to my wife who is from a Central American country, (which is why I am so careful about specifying “U.S. Americans” in this blog post) where courtesy is a critical part of how people relate. For example, in some Central American countries, when you enter a social setting, you say hello to everyone present, one by one, whether you know that person or not, by going up to them and looking them in the eye and either shaking hands or kissing on the cheek, depending. Now, if it’s a room with more than about 15 people, you limit your greetings to those nearest you. I observed my wife teach this to our children when we lived in Nicaragua. 

I remember being in a European country a few years ago and walking with my wife into a hotel lobby where many of my colleagues were standing in a group, and the only people who came up and greeted her were the Europeans. The U.S. Americans acted like she was invisible. 

Another act of courtesy which people in at least some countries outside the U.S. do is to greet the proprietor when entering a store or shop. Not by going up to the counter, necessarily, but just saying “good morning” or “good afternoon” out loud when stepping inside. This one might feel strange to us U.S. Americans, but it is rude not to do in many places. That first impression might affect the service you receive during your visit.

On the topic of greetings, U.S. Americans are notorious for walking right by someone they know and not saying hello. This is considered rude in many places, and my humble opinion is that it should be considered rude in the U.S. People deserve to be treated with the dignity inherent to being human. Each one of us is no better than anyone else and we shouldn’t act like we are. We should take a moment to greet persons we recognize.

Now, lest you feel that I’m picking on my fellow U.S. Americans unnecessarily, I will point out that we are seen by some other cultures as extremely friendly and generous. We’re really good at tipping, for example, especially in restaurants. 

Being in a foreign country and watching the behavior of U.S. Americans there can be embarrassing, however. I’ve found myself sinking in my seat and trying not to be noticed when I’ve been in the presence of U.S. Americans who are acting inappropriately. For example, I was on a train in the UK one day and a brash U.S. American was on his mobile phone speaking loud enough for the entire car/coach to hear his conversation. In fact, the effect was such that everyone in the car quieted down in order to hear his conversation! It was awful. He was acting like the king of the world, dropping names and places he’d been and saying he was on a train from “War-chester,” instead of learning the correct pronunciation of “Worcester.” (It’s pronounced “worse-ter.” Just think of Worcestershire, the county it’s in and the name of the famous sauce: “worse-ter-sher.”) 

Or when my wife and I were in Barcelona, Spain on the metro late one evening and some loud young men with U.S. accents, beer bottles in hand, were talking about how the young ladies at the bar they’d just left were so jealous of them for being American, and how everybody wants to live in the U.S.! Really? I know plenty of people who have no such desire, and witnessing how these cocky U.S. Americans were acting surely had the effect of discouraging those around them from wanting to even visit our country, let alone live in it.

When we lived in Oxford, UK for several years, we could always spot the U.S. Americans a quarter of a mile away because of the volume at which they spoke. They were the loudest people on the street. The piercing sound of the American accents cut through the air like knives, and any Brits nearby, who are contrastingly soft-spoken in public, had pained looks on their faces if they weren’t rolling their eyes.

So here are a few “rules” I’ve explained to colleagues traveling to other countries which, if followed, could help to avoid embarrassing themselves and our organization:

  1. Re-learn to say “please” and “thank you.” Put aside the casual U.S. approach to ordering food in a restaurant by saying “I think I’ll try the souffle” without adding the word “please.” Always say please at the end of your request. I thought I was being extremely polite one day on a bus in the UK when I was getting off at the next stop and was seated by the window and had a gentleman next to me and needed to have him step out of the way so I could get off. I said, “sorry, sir, but I am getting off at the next stop.” He didn’t budge. I thought he hadn’t heard me, so I repeated it. Then I said “sorry” a third time and he rolled his eyes and stepped out of the way and said rather firmly, “a ‘please’ would have been nice!” I realized I was the one at fault, not him.

  2. Observe how others eat their food and do likewise. In some countries, you switch the hands holding the fork and knife when you have to cut a piece of meat and then switch back to eat it. That’s not how I was taught, so I was delighted later while living in the UK to see people cut with their right hand and use their left hand to hold the fork upside down to eat. The bottom line is, do what the majority of the people at the table do. And don’t clean your teeth in public, including using a toothpick. That is to be done in private. Many people from other countries think U.S. Americans are uncouth. Let’s not prove them right.

  3. Do not put your elbows on the table. Yes, it’s all but acceptable in the U.S., but it’s bad manners in some countries, even though it is changing slowly in some. Don’t try to learn which countries…just don’t do it ever and you won’t go wrong. I’ve found that the only way to train myself on this one is to observe this same rule at home.

  4. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Wait until you finish chewing before speaking. I am terrible at this. I want to get those words out before they…what? No longer mean anything? Disappear?

  5. In some countries, it is considered uncouth to drink water or soft drinks or beer directly from a bottle. You’re supposed to pour it into a cup and drink from the cup. Again – you can’t go wrong drinking from a cup all the time.

  6. Learn the greetings of the country you’re visiting. Air kiss on the right cheek in some Latin American countries. A kiss on both cheeks in some European countries. 3 kisses in the Netherlands. Bow in Japan and Korea. Bow and shake hands in China and Vietnam. Etc.

  7. Learn to say hello and goodbye in the language of the country you’re visiting. Just making the attempt is usually enough to win over the person to whom you’re saying it.

  8. Try to move on from your typical U.S. cuisine. Try the local favorites. Your hosts will appreciate it that you are interested in their culture. That interest goes a long way toward making U.S. Americans look less ethno-centric and more open. Also, don’t be surprised that most countries do not serve the mega-portions that we’re accustomed to here in the U.S. And please don’t complain about it when it does happen – it’s healthier, after all.

In short, the goal is to not be the rudest person in the room. I’m sure there are plenty of other rules we could add to this list, but these are the eight that I’ve landed on based on my own experiences in different countries and cultures. I hope they’re useful. 

Happy trails!

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