The assumptions we make based on people’s behavior are no longer valid when we enter a new culture. Instead of taking things personally, we now need to take a moment and think: “Why does this upset me? Where is this person’s action coming from – is it simply cultural or is it actually malicious intent?”
Allow me to make a few examples:
1. In America, if we don’t say hello to a friend, that friend may be disappointed but probably won’t be upset. However, in France, to not greet a colleague, a friend, or a customer service person is to insult them. The French have an air and feeling of nobility, and to say “bonjour madame/monsieur” is to recognize that they exist and are your equal. To not say “bonjour…” is to tell them that they are below you and not worth your acknowledgement.
2. Crossing the street: most of the French students I’ve met cross the street much the way Americans do. They move quickly so that the folks driving cars don’t have to wait. My Spanish-speaking friends, though, (be they from Spain or South America), tend to sort of meander across the road. I don’t know if this upsets any of the French drivers, but I hope not.
3. Americans say, “Am I clear?” while explaining something to make sure that we (the explainer) is doing a good enough job. However, to ask a French person, “Est-ce que je suis claire?” (Am I clear?) is to ask, “Are you smart enough to follow what I’m saying?” or “You’re not stupid, are you?”
4. On my trip this past week, I noticed that one of my roommates would rinse a dish whenever he took one from the cupboard to use it. These dishes were of course already washed, and an American might think, “He thinks I didn’t wash the dishes well enough.” However, it’s more likely that it’s just something he does – it’s cultural, or perhaps it’s something his family does.
5. Folks from the Midwest (and apparently Brits) apologize too much. On my trip, I found myself apologizing to the three Spanish women because the guys had eaten too much of the pasta and there wasn’t much left. In my head, I was thinking that I should have made sure the guys took smaller portions so we could feed everyone. The women told me that it’s not my fault – and then I apologized again. At about the third or fourth “Sorry,” one of them simply said, “Stop apologizing. Just sit and talk with us.”