Play by the rules
Overwhelmed by the difference in social mannerisms when abroad, we may feel we not on the right path – that we are going the wrong way. When we behave the way we were socialized at home when abroad, we may be misunderstood and also misunderstand others. It’s natural. For instance, when I studied my Master’s degree in Chennai, India, I encountered many new mannerisms, behaviors and social interactions that made me ask, “Why does that happen in India?” I asked a lot of these questions to all kinds of people. Like small kids ask why the sun is yellow or the sky is blue, I used to ask, “Why can’t I do this? Why should I do that?” in hopes of getting insight and directions on this new cross-cultural map. I know others saw me as being rebellious – as I was asking elders these questions most of the time. Maybe sometimes I was because of culture shock taking over and it was just one more thing to try to understand when I was already overwhelmed. I wanted to understand why I needed to do this or not do that (what kind of impression was I leaving behind and how could I do it better). But rather than find out why, many answered me, “It’s just how it is here. That is how things are done. We don’t question it. Our parents taught us this is correct. We just do it. It’s because it’s our culture.”
Ultimately, in attempts to explain it to me, many simply blamed it on the culture. This is an easy way out- because how many of us really understand why we do what we do? How many take the time to review our unconscious and habitual ways? Many of us do as we were taught or as we seen our parents or elders do regardless of our birth culture, so when we encounter questions about why we do what we do, we could feel strange or even offended to answer. We surely do not know why, so it’s better left to be blamed on the culture.
Everyone is socialized differently. What creates good impressions in one country may not create a good impression in another country. In the case of hygiene, we can blame it on American's noses- as we don't like to smell unpleasant body odors. Read an interesting article entitled "The Great American Nose" found on this page (scroll down a little, right side) that sheds light on this.
Thank you for this tip, Kim Diehl.
American noses do not prefer natural body odors. The main thing to focus on is how to banish natural scents through laundering clothes after each wash and applying products that keep us dry and smelling 'fresh'. Lean it to Americans obsession about particular kinds of smells and that body odor [and the appearance of body odor, such as sweat stains under the arm, or dirty clothes] are barriers to understanding and relationship building in America.
I was asked to discuss hygiene with au pairs coming to the USA. Americans- strongly value pleasant scents, (yes, this is by and large subjective) and will judge someone negatively if they don't smell pleasant. I gave them plenty of examples of advertisements of household products, toiletries and of course perfumes to illustrate the point. In this specific case I linked the message with clear examples of cultural norms and values and it made the message less 'personal', offensive or judgmental.
Thank you for this tip, Valli Murphy
As Valli clearly shares, ‘blaming it on the culture’ makes the learning experience more academic and less personal, offensive or judgmental. We often take for granted what we learned being socialized as children. When we have to learn new ways as an adult to make a good impression abroad, we can feel inadequate. Broaching such topics using the tips in this series can help us about sensitive and taboo topics in a safe space; appreciating why differences exist, how to adjust ourselves and why it’s important to do so to create and maintain a good impression with those overseas.
End of Tip 5
<-- Read Tip 4: Reference Points
Jennifer Kumar helps Indians work and communicate more effectively with Americans without compromising their identity.