Cultural (In)Sensitivities

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Ex-Calif

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This is a new thread that might be fun. I broke it out of this thread after Tom and I started causes some serious thread drift. That's not really free delivery

Lots of us have traveled the world whether commercially or n the military. Americans ar "famous" for their "dead ears" when it comes to culture. Feel free to pile on with any anecdotes surrounding cultural faux pas or cultural sensitivity.

One thing in Japan we were cautioned about was inviting Japanese colleagues to our apartments. After a year or so I invited some colleagues to my 4,000 square foot apartment practically in the heart of Tokyo. For calibration this was the 90s and the rent was over $10,000 a month.

The cocktail party was going well with the Japanese expectedly reserved, polite and "nice." Finally I cornered one usually talkative guy and asked why he's been so quiet. "He thought for a minute and said. "Deutsch-san your living room is bigger than my whole house!" - Needless to say I realized that they were probably uncomfortable. I left the entertaining up to outside venues after that.

Another time a mid-level engineer came to me so proud that he finally bought an apartment. "Yes Deutsch-san. I have a great apartment for my family. It is 5th floor walk up and the commute to work is only 1 1/2 hours!" I was floored and asked him (probably rudely) how long it would take to pay the mortgage as in the US it was common to have a 30 year loan. "Deutsch-san. My grandchildren will still be paying for this loan." It was a 99 year loan at something like 1% interest.
 
I have family in Japan and have been lucky enough to travel and work there. I'm familiar with many of the do's and don'ts. Here's some that come to mind.

Business cards. If you receive a business card from a Japanese person, do not automatically stuff it in your wallet. Sitting on their business card isn't good etiquette.

Noodles. Avoid biting off noodles as you eat them. Long noodles = long life.

Rice. Never stab your chopsticks in a bowl of rice you're eating. A bowl of rice with chopsticks stuck in them is only presented at an altar to someone who has passed away.
 
Business cards. If you receive a business card from a Japanese person, do not automatically stuff it in your wallet. Sitting on their business card isn't good etiquette.
LOL. I learned to hand my card with both hands, and receive one with both hands. Then "study" the card and express some interest and seem impressed with a few "ahhs". This process seemed to take a long time at the beginning of a large meeting. Then, if someone entered the room part way through, all stop and go through the card handing/reading ceremony again.
 
I remember the first time I went to Tokyo how it was so over the top for all the senses. Riding the underground was so pleasant and easy though I’ll never forget people staring at the tall American redhead (me) strap hanging. I went to one of the theaters during a performance and realized it wasn’t empty and tried to duck out unnoticed, an usher? ran over to me and asked if she could help me(in English) and said she was so happy to get to speak English. She took me all around the different places theater-goers weren’t allowed. It was one of my best experiences in Japan!
 
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What I'll add (and I'm sure you know) is that a big part of it is to ascertain the seniority of those who you are exchanging cards with. Then, you can figure out how honorific and respectful your interactions will be.
 
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Riding the underground was so pleasant and easy though I’ll never forget people staring at the tall American redhead (me) strap hanging.
I'd spend a couple of weeks at a time, base myself in a suburb of Tokyo, and travel everywhere by train - Shinkansen (bullet train), express train, local/commuter train. One time my guide got me on the wrong train, and we had to double back on a commuter train at commute time.

When the trains are full, the "pushers" on the station keep manually shoving more folks aboard. My guide explained that, when they shove like that, the folks in the middle of the pile don't have their feet on the floor :D
 
Not a (in)sensitivity issue per se, but a calibration.

A Scottish-born friend often tells folks that my native Welsh language has no vowels. But, my synopsis of the differences between Welsh and English:

  • 29 letters in the Welsh alphabet (vs 26).
  • The English letters K, Q, V, X and Z do not exist in Welsh.
  • Double-lettered sounds being single letters in Welsh: Ch, Dd, Ff, Ng, Ll, Ph, Rh and Th.
  • 7 vowels in the Welsh alphabet (vs 5): a, e, i, o, u, w, y.
  • In Welsh grammar, an adjective follows a noun.
  • Welsh nouns are either masculine or feminine.
  • The definite article y (before a consonant) or yr (before a vowel) causes a singular feminine noun to undergo a soft mutation; The three types of mutations are the soft mutation, the nasal mutation, and the aspirate mutation.
More on this subject on this page of a personal site.
 
Not a (in)sensitivity issue per se, but a calibration.

A Scottish-born friend often tells folks that my native Welsh language has no vowels. But, my synopsis of the differences between Welsh and English:

  • 29 letters in the Welsh alphabet (vs 26).
  • The English letters K, Q, V, X and Z do not exist in Welsh.
  • Double-lettered sounds being single letters in Welsh: Ch, Dd, Ff, Ng, Ll, Ph, Rh and Th.
  • 7 vowels in the Welsh alphabet (vs 5): a, e, i, o, u, w, y.
  • In Welsh grammar, an adjective follows a noun.
  • Welsh nouns are either masculine or feminine.
  • The definite article y (before a consonant) or yr (before a vowel) causes a singular feminine noun to undergo a soft mutation; The three types of mutations are the soft mutation, the nasal mutation, and the aspirate mutation.
More on this subject on this page of a personal site.
That's interesting. About 10 years ago, my wife and I were watching an episode of Wheel of Fortune and one of the contestants was an English teacher. At one point she said, "I would like to buy a vowel - a 'Y', please". Pat said, "I'm sorry. In the real world a 'Y' might sometimes be considered a vowel, but here in TV Land it's a consonant."

I always thought she got a raw deal on that.
 
The Japanese cultural tips and stories have been fascinating. Thanks for these. I kind of held back due to thread drift, and never having business or social interactions with the far east.

However I did have a bit of business travel in western europe and latin america. A couple of such instances come straight to mind when reading these.

Both involve a contract and later employment with a Siemens subsidiary in the US. My first day was boarding a flight to Munich for a week long project planning exercise. In fact, I think having a valid passport and a credit card for my lodging was what landed the job. There were about two dozen participants from all over the world, all staying at the same hotel that was three train stops from the office. I did my homework and knew it was winter there, and packed accordingly. I always wore a suit and brought my overcoat and a felt fedora hat. Also of note, I already look like a walking hate crime without dressing up in business attire. Nobody else, especially the other Americans, dressed like that.

German train platforms have sort of an honor system - you purchase a ticket for the desired trip from a vending machine near the entrance. As you enter the hall, there is a single pedestal in the middle where you timestamp your ticket on the way to the platform. Randomly the police will challenge passengers and want to see the ticket. Out of all those people, I was the only one never to be challenged by the police for the entire trip. I looked like a native and blended right in. They never bothered me, and thank God never tried to strike up a conversation. I was barely literate in German having spent a few hours taking babel lessons on my phone. Many more stories from that trip when the opportunity strikes.

The other occasion was getting to know my coworkers after landing in São Paulo Brazil for the first of two 2 week visits. Incidentally I discovered the Latin American sites were choice destinations for German corporate tourists. Those people would take six month assignments there just for the travel. Anywhoo.. one day one of my German friends confided with me that he and some others had gotten very frustrated with the local (Brazil) team.

Turns out it was a total culture clash. The Germans were scheduling planning meetings at 0700. In part because some remote participants in Europe would be dialing in at 1300 their time, thus a later start risks hitting them at the end of the day. So these guys would show up promptly at 7 and have an empty room LOL. Then the Brazilians would come wandering into the office starting around 0930, completely missing the meeting.

I just laughed. Sorry friend, but the locals day runs about 4 hours later than yours. You'll need to adapt or figure out a way to work around that. You're not going to get them into a 7am meeting, period. I empathized some, admitting I couldn't do the late dinner and cocktails things with them either. They were ready to eat at 10pm then stay out for drinks much later. My American digestive system never liked late meals, and by 9pm I was pooped and already back at my hotel ready for bed.
 
Since you cannot own a Mexican company we partnered with one. We were the #1 company in the US and they were #1 in Mexico. Both of us were multi billion dollar companies with 10 factories between us. Soon our president was getting reports the Mexicans were discussing ending our partnership.

On my first trip to Monterrey MX I was shocked all their employees were so extremely polite. They made a point of wishing each and every person a good morning and good night to everyone every evening. Every email started and ended with pleasantries and well wishes.

Imagine our intercompany emails with this kind of language: "Dear Joe, I hope you are having a wonderful day, but I must disagree with your opinion. Thank you and I hope you and your family have a great and rewarding evening. Best wishes, Jorge"

They felt people in the US were extremely brash and rude. Our lack of manners was seen as a lack of respect and professionalism. It isn't just Mexico. Many other countries have the same opinion for the same reasons.

I didn't have the time but at their president's request my president made me their liaison. I had to add greetings, well wishes, and reword any objectionable language on every email and correspondence going to Mexico from 2006 until I retired in 2018.
 
When you see two men walking a dog at an RV resort, maybe think twice before you ask if they’re brothers? Similarly, when two men are in the checkout line at the grocery store with one cart of groceries. I mean, it’s fine if you do, nobody will stop you. But please be prepared to be informed that no, the two men are not brothers. That would be weird. We’re married.

I’m sure you straight people take RV vacations with your brother or sister all the time, just the two of you. That’s kind of unusual to me, I typically go with my spouse.

If you do get to talking, it’s kind of boring to ask things about how we play house. Both of us cook. Both of us hate doing laundry and cleaning bathrooms. We experience things just like other people in relationships do. I’m a better getaway driver, though, we’ve established that at least.

It’s OK to say hi to us in an RV park. Most people do. Some don’t say hi or wave back when we initiate friendly greetings, and it’s just as rude in our culture as it is in yours.

:)
 
Almost all of Asia had "drinking" rituals. I was in my prime - mid-30s and could outdrink just about anyone. Especially the Japanese who are lightweights. But Vietnam was different.

They drink this firewater that tastes like nail polish remover smells. But they do "individual" toasts. So one guy looks at me raises his glass (shot glass held and cupped by the second hand) By the time 10 guys individually toast you, you are on your way to LaLa land.

Each shot is washed down with beer. "Going to DaNang" is chugging half a beer. Going "All the way to Hanoi" is chugging a full beer...

The other thing is cuisine. As the foreigner, guest and supplier you basically had to eat anything they put in front of you. I've had every weird dish imaginable.

OTOH - Whenever I hosted a customer group and HQ and asked what they wanted to eat it was universally, "Morton's Steakhouse." - LOL

Except the mainland Chinese. They wanted Chinese food and there was only one "authentic" Chinese restaurant in Cincinnati.
 
Especially the Japanese who are lightweights. But Vietnam was different.
I don’t know where you were in Japan but up north on the main island and Sapporo we found those folks to be quite astute at imbibing. Even the little old ladies at festivals would just roll off their blankets and throw up and get right back to their drinking.
Our friend in Sapporo owned a sake store and was a wine enthusiast. There was no way I could keep up with him and I was known to down two pitchers of beer and eat 50 chicken wings for dinner.
 
don’t know where you were in Japan but up north on the main island and Sapporo we found those folks to be quite astute at imbibing.

Oh, I'm not proud of it but in my 30's I was an Olympic class "business" drinker. So I use the term lightweight, not in the literal sense but in the relative sense - LOL...

Today I hardly drink at all. I drink rarely and only at social type functions.
 
Oh, I'm not proud of it but in my 30's I was an Olympic class "business" drinker. So I use the term lightweight, not in the literal sense but in the relative sense - LOL...

Today I hardly drink at all. I drink rarely and only at social type functions.
We don’t drink anything like we used to. When I was active duty drinking was almost expected of us. Alcohol was cheaper on base. Military functions always included alcohol. I used to get terrible hangovers but I had a gastric bypass in 2012 and since then I do not get hangovers. We have a couple of cocktails before bedtime or share a bottle of cava or Proseco.
 
It’s interesting to read about the confusion American GI’s experienced when entire families in Okinawa would commit suicide to avoid interaction with what they were indoctrinated to believe were barbarian invaders who ate children. When Churchill said Brits would fight to the death against a German invasion it was figurative. It was literal for the Japanese and the reason the surrender of Japan was conditional. Had the Emperor not made the radio address announcing a cessation of hostilities it would have gone much differently. Japan was a different country, as if a switch had been thrown, the minute the emperor finished speaking. Arguably, had Hirohito not spoken the incineration of every city in Japan would have made no difference.
 
The other thing is cuisine. As the foreigner, guest and supplier you basically had to eat anything they put in front of you. I've had every weird dish imaginable.
In some places in the Pacific rim, there were hotels that had designated floors or blocks of rooms where business-women were booked-grouped-cloistered while staying there. I never really asked why, safety I imagine (I had an incident in Seoul that confirmed this - cab driver followed me to my room and tried to get in - scary), but these floors were like a big slumber party and the breakfast buffets had some weird stuff, the garden hose looking stuff was the best, salty. I’d always load up my plate and say “breakfast of champions”.
 

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