“Cultural Missteps”


I imagine that anywhere in the world opening your car window when a bear is outside is a bad idea. But in many other instances, what is appropriate, polite or mannerly in one place is inappropriate, impolite or bad manners in another. These differences aren’t limited to different countries, but can easily exist within the same country, even the same neighborhood or the same church.

I come from a faith tradition where everyone is expected to know everyone and to chat with them before the service. When we started attending our  Catholic church I discovered a much different expectation. I thought the person who sat down next to me in a pew should say hello. The person had no such expectations. I thought they were rude for not speaking. Some person at one point told me that they were taught to be silent before the service. They must have thought I was the rude person.

When we bought our house here we wanted the same kind of privacy in our back yard that we had enjoyed in Portland. We installed an attractive, expensive fence to surround our back lot. We learned that this was seen as unneighborly. Our neighbors apparently enjoyed looking across and through our yard at other yards and other neighbors. No one had fences, and they liked it just fine.

And then there is the two cheek kissing by older Italian men at church. I recognize that there is no element of “me too” in their behavior. But it throws me every time I am enveloped in an embrace and kissed on both cheeks. Am I supposed to kiss back? Where do I put my nose anyway! I still struggle with the practice, but do know that it would be rude to pull away from a well intentioned greeting.

I loved the responses about table manners from readers. I would enjoy hearing of cultural missteps any of you have made either around your country or in visiting another.

15 thoughts on ““Cultural Missteps”

  1. I come from a working class background and my husband’s family was upper middle class. And one of the first things I noticed when we started dating was the difference in communication styles. People from my background tend to be very direct in their communication, while upper middle class people tend to be more indirect, and you’re supposed to sort of “pick up” what they want. At first my husband and I clashed a bit over this difference, but at some point finally “got” that our respective ways of communicating were not right or wrong, just different.


  2. I was once told that it is rude to show your feet in some countries. I was sitting outside a bar in Turkey, and slipped off my shoes, as it was so hot. When I crossed my legs, people at other tables pointed at me, and shook their heads. The tour rep told me that it was considered insulting, outside of places like the beach. The cheek kissing thing is confusing, never knowing if it should just be an ‘air kiss’ or a real one.
    Living in England, I never have to worry about windows down or open, when approached by a bear. Fortunately!
    Best wishes, Pete.


  3. My wife and I moved from a medium-sized city to a little town of less than a thousand, much smaller than anywhere we had ever lived. Having always been fairly private people, we didn’t fare too well in this little town I referred to as “Peyton Place”. One morning I heard the back door open as our neighbor’s children walked in as if it was their own house. I asked them what they were doing, and they just looked at me blankly, and then left. I soon learned from the mother that these kids had grown up mostly with neighbors who they considered “family” and had assumed we would be the same. It was kind of sweet, but not really unacceptable to us. We eventually reached a happy medium, which is probably a topic for a different day, but suffice it to say we never attempted to reach that “family” status, eventually deciding small town living wasn’t for us. Great question! Hope your neighbors got over the fence. Thanks.


    1. My neighbors here did exactly the same thing. Scared me half to death when they walked in. They still expect me to just walk in. It has taken some getting used to. I lock our back door!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When I lived in Asia (a posting with the military) we were briefed on arrival to not to stand in public with our hand’s on our hips (being women) as this was the sign for women of the night & would attract very unwanted advances from local men!
    We were also warned not to wear short shorts, two piece swimsuits or bikinis on the beach as it was a Moslem country & this would be seen as an obscene gesture.


  5. Your story about the Italian cheek kissing made me laugh, Elizabeth. I come for a conservative English background where none of the relatives kiss, even hugs are unusual. I have a few Portuguese and Greek friends who also do the cheek kissing thing and I feel the same as you do. A bit awkward.


  6. “Where do I put my nose anyway!”😂
    Hi Elizabeth, you know, when I lived in Alabama, it was common for other black people in some areas to ask me “Who are your people?” It’s an old tradition, a way of asking about your family, their geography, and how many degrees of separation there could be between families. However, when I am in a northern, urban setting, and the only or one of few black people in the room, I often feel uncomfortable when white people ask personal questions about my background because I feel that they are trying to judge whether or not I “belong” there.
    ….maybe this falls under “cultural sensitivity” rather than “cultural missteps”?


    1. My biracial daughter is constantly asked “What are you?” She replies “a person.” I think this is the cultural sensitivity because I don’t think they ask a white girl “what are you?”


      1. I’m sorry to learn that so many people think it’s okay to ask your daughter “What are you?” I’d not considered that biracial people have to respond to this kind of rudeness on a regular basis😒.


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