By David Reid
Suppose you went to America or England. You have learned about the country in school, from television, from the Internet, and so forth. You also know the language. You don’t want to offend the people there. However, you might offend the people there without wanting to. In your language courses, you cannot learn all the latest idioms. Knowing all about Buckingham palace will not help you in everyday life in London. News programs do not tell you about the subtle1 meanings of gestures2. TV serials do not tell you what is acceptable in Samara but insulting in New York.
Being “culturally aware” means to know enough about a society so that you can act in that society without offending others unintentionally. This means that you need to familiarize3 yourself with that society’s norms. Going against these norms can go under various names. We list a few of them, from the strongest to the weakest:
a breaking a taboo,
b being rude,
c being impolite,
d being tactless,
e committing a faux pas4
f being politically incorrect (USA only),
g not setting the bon ton5 (cultured society).
Let us examine each one of these categories.
Taboos are things you do not talk about or do without strong social condemnation. Some taboos are the same in Russia and abroad. There are some examples that are so taboo that I should not even mention them in this article. For a tamer6 example: in America it is taboo to ask someone about their personal income7.
Rudeness. The attitude towards queues (British English) or lines (American English) is quite different between the British-based cultures (Britain, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and the rest of the world. Queues are everywhere a synthesis of competition and cooperation. However, in most cultures, it is the competition that is most important. It is often considered justified to get in front of others because of their hesitation or slowness. In British-based cultures, the attitude of cooperation is stronger, and such behavior is considered rude. Observe, as an example, British bus queues.
Another, more subtle, difference is “personal space”. This is the space that a person wishes to have around him or her without anyone else in that space except for intimate situations, sport, handshakes, and the like. There are great differences between cultures in this regard. For example, waiting in a queue, a Russian will usually get within a few centimeters of the person in front; the Americans will leave a much larger distance. The same applies to talking to someone: how close do you approach the other person’s face? To violate this “personal space” is considered rude. A Russian in America inadvertently8 offends simply by standing in a queue in a standard Russian fashion.
Impoliteness. This can simply be by not observing some custom of politeness. For example, in Britain and in America, a gentleman should open the door for a lady when the opportunity permits. Not to do so is impolite.
Tactlessness. There are often words or actions which, in general situations, are not considered offensive, but in a special situation might offend. To talk about suicide is usually acceptable — but can be tactless if someone present has just lost a dear one who committed suicide. To know what is tactful and what is not, one must know both the society’s norms and the situation of those around you. Generally, tactlessness includes the concept of “you should have known better”.
Faux pas, from the French for “false step”, is a social mistake committed by carelessness or sometimes by ignorance. If this is by speech, it is also called “to put one’s foot in one’s mouth.” For example, a colleague of mine once gave a French lesson about a typical French dinner, with tasty pork and a good wine. Then she realized that her students were Moslems, for whom such food is forbidden. This was a faux pas.
Political incorrectness is an American term, although some instances of its usage are adopted in England. Briefly, certain words or actions are considered to promote the oppression9 of certain groups: words concerning women, racial or ethnic groups, homosexuals, prostitutes (“sex workers”), handicapped (“physically challenged”, “mentally challenged”, “differently abled”), the aged (“in the golden age”) and so forth, must be carefully chosen. Actions that might imply the possibility of sexual harassment10 must be avoided.
Not observing the bon ton of a situation is a concept unique to high society. “Bon ton”, from French, literally means “a good tone”. Here it means the appropriate speech and behaviour expected of a cultured person in a given situation. What is talked about at a Texan barbecue is unlikely to be bon ton in a ball given by Her Majesty the Queen of England. Stories told in an English pub may be inappropriate at a Church gathering in the USA.
Getting a feel for a society is not easy. The language, history, and basic customs are not enough. Anyone who has lived abroad can tell you that. Cultural awareness includes a flexibility and an openness to others’ ideas and even to their prejudices.
1 subtle – тонкий, едва различимый
2 gesture – жест, мимика
3 familiarize – знакомить
4 faux pas – (фр. ложный шаг) ошибка, проступок
5 bon ton – (фр.) хорошие манеры
6 tame – культурный
7 income – доход, заработок
8 inadvertently – непреднамеренно
9 oppression – притеснение
10 sexual harassment – сексуальные домогательства
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