“That’s Just How it is Done Here!”

Posted On: August 8, 2015

The fifth tip in a series of tips on How to Broach Delicate Topics is to:  
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.  It’s a shock when the mannerisms, pleasantries and even courtesies that we thought were common sense and universal are missing or re-enacted totally different in a different culture. Although we may feel that we are in the twilight zone, or some strange, parallel universe, this is a normal fallout of culture shock

“We are like this only.”

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, or even, disrespectful – as I was asking elders these questions most of the time. Maybe sometimes it 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. We just do it. It’s because it’s our culture.”  (An Indian English idiom often used to describe this is We are like this only.) 

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.

Tipping the Nose to Smells!
Kim Diehl notes:

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. For more on this, read “The Great American Nose” that sheds light on this.

Americans do not appreciate unpleasant or strong odors. This is true with body odors as well as strong smelling food. If we look at body odors, Americans tend to criticize people who sweat a lot, and especially have sweat stains under their arms. While not all sweat stinks (smells bad), it’s better to wear deodorants or antiperspirants to prevent sweat or mask the smell whenever possible (some people avoid these cosmetics for health reasons and find alternative ways to solve these problems). Here are some professional and home-made commercials on sweat, deodorants and people’s thoughts about it. 

Notice how feeling “confident and secure” is tied in with American imagery of cowboys, navy men and even the Statue of Liberty in this commercial from the 80s for Sure deodorant.

See The Video On YouTube

While it makes sense to want to be dry and un-smelly in the office, commercials also train Americans to be this way on dates, at parties, at dance clubs, and in any public setting, as this Sure commercial also demonstrates.

See The Video On YouTube

This advert demonstrates the importance of using the right deodorant even at the gym!

See the video on YouTube

While society brainwashes us to believe if we sweat, we must stink, and therefore people won’t want to be around us, many of us become very conscious about this. Some of us may stay away from others for fear of being thought of as unclean if we sweat as this commercial for Degree deodorant demonstrates.

See the video on YouTube

Additionally, if you tend to enjoy ethnic or spicy food like I do, it’s better not to bring it to your office. Foods that leave a strong aroma or smell behind are not good for the office in the US. Foods most people avoid at work are fish (tuna), ethnic foods including Chinese, Indian, Thai, or other spicy cuisine, or foods with a lot of garlic or onions (Italian foods may qualify for this). Many may wonder what then can one eat at work? Bring in bland smelling foods like pasta with plainer tomato sauce adding pepper or condiments after it has been heated, salads, sandwiches, bagels, soups, assuring that once it’s warmed it doesn’t “smell”. If in doubt, as your colleagues what are the best foods to bring in for lunch, or which to avoid. 

Additionally, Valli Murphy adds, 

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. 

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

Read Tip 6: Popular Culture Insight –>

If you are planning a business trip to the US or need to understand the American ways to better mix up with your US colleagues onsite or offshore, on routine business trips or pivotal business meetings, contact Jennifer Kumar for more information.  



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