Words are not the only tools of communication, and failing to be aware of the differences between cultures, their traditions and values, can sometimes cause far greater misunderstanding than any linguistic shortcomings. Living in France and Italy I adapted effortlessly to the tradition of greeting each other with kisses on the cheek. In some places it was two, in some three and in others, people were insulted if you didn’t give them four! I don’t think I ever quite worked out which region gave which number of kisses but the important thing was to take my cue from other people and be ever ready to exchange a kiss or two.
God knows what the Danes thought of me when I moved to Copenhagen several years later. Here, a common greeting between friends and colleagues is the hug. Jowl to jowl in firm Viking clamps, it is never easy to see exactly what goes on and (much to my embarrassment now) I never even stopped to think. I imagine that I kissed more Danish men during my years in Copenhagen than most Danish women have in their entire life! Although, in this case, my lack of understanding of social customs left me unscathed, it is easy to see how cultural insensitivity can lead to embarrassment, even offence. What irritates me is not so much the fact that I didn’t know this custom but that I wasn’t receptive enough to pick it up. After years of kissing the Danes I still failed to notice that none of them were kissing me!
There are many areas where potential misunderstandings can arise. Here are some of the major arenas for cultural differences and forewarned is hopefully forearmed.
Areas of potential cultural misunderstanding
How do people greet each other? How much, and what type of physical contact is involved? How does this differ according to the relationships between people?
What is the usual dress code for work, dinners ‘en famille’ or at a restaurant? How do people dress at religious festivals or on holy days? Is revealing certain parts of the body seen as disrespectful? For example, you can’t to go into some churches in Italy with bare shoulders but you can go topless on some of the beaches.
3. Food and drink
How are people seated round a table? Who is served first? Who starts? Are there any ritualistic salutations or ceremonies connected to eating or drinking?
In Sweden people don’t usually start their wine at a meal until their host has raised a toast and looked them solemnly in the eye for three seconds.
Who pays? Can you barter? Should you pay a tip? How is the subject of money addressed? Is it talked about openly or considered an ‘unsavoury’ subject? Many years ago I remember paying for a day’s history tour of Copenhagen. Before we left, the lecturer gave an introductory talk on the day; on the places of architectural wonder we would visit, the palaces and cathedrals and (his talk reached its climax) a café where we could buy a cheap cup of coffee! To the other extreme, when paying a large restaurant bill at my local restaurant in Spain, I received wounded stares from Teresa, the owner, when I even ventured a glance at the arithmetic.
5. Relationships between males and females
Do men address women differently than they address other men? Is there a set protocol for the way men should treat women in public? Or women should treat men? In Northern Europe opening a door for women can sometimes be risky affair as some women are likely to interpret it as an act of chauvinism. In Southern Europe, not doing so is more likely to be interpreted as bad manners.
6. Present giving
When are you expected to give a gift? What type of gifts are considered appropriate? In Mediterranean countries people more often tend to bring flowers and chocolates for the host of a dinner party than a bottle of wine.
7. Business relationships
Do you treat your superiors differently from your colleagues and subordinates? Do the different levels of the corporate hierarchy mix socially? How and where is business conducted? Who makes the decisions?
I remember an incident when an English man visited a German company in the hope of winning a contract. He was finally given it, and invited all the staff out for a celebratory drink. The following Monday he learned that the contract had been cancelled and only months later learned why. The directors of the German company had seem him fraternise with the lower ranks and had come to mistrust him.
Although, in Western Europe, the differences between cultures are not as radical as they are between different continents, they still exist. It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by the ubiquitous Gucci shoes or mobile telephones, yet behind the modern veneer of western cultures lie thousands of years of history. Religion, wars, political upheaval, immigration, geography all leave lasting fingerprints on cultures, and on people’s values and perceptions. What may seem a superficial ritual to the outsider, to the insider may be an important symbol of respect.
One of the greatest skills we can learn when we travel is to be discerning; to watch, observe and listen. A few hours spent in a café in the centre of town observing the people who pass by may be as useful to your overall communication skills as tackling the next irregular verb!