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Why Being Culturally Sensitive is Important

Photo by Nathaniel Tetteh on Unsplash

Once one learns proper manners, whether from a parent’s teaching or from reading about how to behave in polite company, it is important to remember that not all people, especially those from other cultures always have the same priorities that you do. While it may be proper and perhaps even expected behavior in this country that when greeting someone you look them in the eye, smile and put your hand out to them offering a hearty handshake, we must consider that it is with the first greeting that impressions are made and that, while we may find this to be a friendly approach, it may not be received in that way by some from other cultures.

Eye contact, being one of the more subtle forms of social interaction, should never be underestimated. In Western cultures eye contact is essential and expected because it shows interest in interacting with another and its absence may signal a lack of interest in what another is saying or perhaps that they are lacking in self-confidence or even that they are lying. There are always variations within cultures but many in some of the African and Latin American cultures consider intense eye contact as aggressive, confrontational and extremely disrespectful. In some Middle Eastern cultures intense eye contact can show sincerity or long, strong eye contact can be used to say, “believe me, I’m telling you the truth.” Also, because of the gender rules there, women must be careful with eye contact as it could be considered romantic interest. In China and Japan, eye contact is not deemed necessary for interaction and it is considered inappropriate for subordinates to make steady eye contact with their superiors.

The smile, however, is pretty much a universal sign of friendliness and in this country. We generally take it as such, but in some Asian cultures smiling is reserved for informal occasions. Hence, smiling during a formal introduction would be deemed disrespectful. In some of the Latin cultures, the smile may be used to say, “Please” or “Excuse me". Initiating a handshake should really be avoided with other cultures as it can be uncertain how it will be received. While many in Japan are now willing to accept a handshake, the bow is still considered a more appropriate greeting, and in the Middle East, when among Orthodox Jews and Muslims, men should be careful not to pull their hands away too quickly and any body contact between persons of the opposite sex should be avoided.

Growing up most of us were likely taught that spitting, slurping your soup or sticking your tongue out were no-nos. If you happen to sell a house to a member of the Maasai tribe from central Africa keep your towel handy as they will go outside the house and spit in four directions, and may spit at you as a greeting, or spit on their hands before shaking yours in case they forgot to spit at you. Though frowned upon here, dining quietly in many Asian countries may be unusual. It is taken as high praise in China and Japan to slurp soup or noodles as doing so implies the food is so good one does not even wait for it to cool. The same can be said for slurping tea in Japan as it indicates to the host great satisfaction with the meal. And while we may consider sticking one’s tongue out at someone to perhaps be an insult, in Italy it could net you a fine; and it signifies unbelievable anger in India. However, in Tibet, sticking out one’s tongue is considered respectful when greeting someone, and in New Caledonia the gesture means a wish for energy and wisdom. 

These practices are interesting because they are different from the behaviors we learned were proper, but it is important to also recognize that generalizations about cultural differences could mislead us. Do not expect all peoples within any culture to always act the way their overall practices have been described. With the advent of easy international travel there is some blending of the mannerisms and as a result, some Japanese may shake hands rather than bow in greeting and some other Asian cultures may smile even at formal introductions. In any event, should you want more information about cultural differences or any other facet of manners you could check out the Business Etiquette course at the Champions School of Real Estate.

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