6 Embarrassing Cultural Diversity Faux Pas

by Jul 6, 2022

Cultural diversity is an important aspect of the modern workplace. A wide range of voices is needed to ensure your organization is accepting and flexible enough to hold a wide array of views and opinions. Growth cannot come from homogeneous thinking, after all.

However, some businesses get a bit excited about diversity. Oftentimes, they are so focused on gaining diversity in the workplace that they become offensive. Ignorance is the bane of many diverse workplaces, as people are naturally predisposed to not reacting well to things they don’t understand.

Today, we’ll talk about some cross-cultural faux pas that you must do your best to avoid. 

 

What’s a Cultural Faux-Pas?

A cultural faux-pas is doing something offensive to another person’s culture on accident. Famous examples include eating with one’s left hand in India, being too familiar with Japanese or German businessmen, or not finishing a meal made by someone from the Guangdong province of China. There are certain cultural things that different people will be affected by.

Do note, however, that this is very much a case-by-case basis. You should always, first and foremost, create a safe and nurturing environment for your employees, clients, and business partners by simply asking them if they are comfortable. Pay attention to them during the conversation, and encourage them to say what they are or aren’t comfortable with. 

After all, they are still people. They may have committed some cultural faux pas themselves at some point. If you are understanding and polite, chances are they will return that feeling in kind. 

Generally speaking, being mindful of others will get you through most cultural faux pas concerns, and apologizing for it afterward is fine. Some people may even self-deprecate, which increases their rapport with the other person.

 

Examples of Cultural Diversity Faux Pas

Here are some broad and embarrassing mistakes to look out for.

Joking About Religious Holidays

When a person is abstaining from doing a certain thing or was absent for that day, always check if they’re doing it for religious reasons. You don’t want to be the person making light of another person’s religious practices for an offhand remark. 

For example, if you notice a Muslim friend isn’t eating much, check if it’s Ramadan. During Ramadan, avoid asking out Muslim associates to lunch meetings, or for a “night on the town”, especially if they are actively practicing.

Awkward Greetings

There are millions of different greetings out there. The vast cultural diversity makes it understandable if a person doesn’t know every single one from the get-go. The important thing to understand about these is that both parties are just different in showcasing politeness and affection. 

For example, patting a child’s head in Japan or America is cute. However, it is seen as a big no-no in Thailand, as the head is considered the cleanest part of the body. Patting or ruffling it, it’s a sign of disrespect.

Rude Gestures

Body language and hand gestures are major yet underrated aspects of communication. During meetings, proper team communication relies on knowing the different cultures on your team, and what gestures to use so that they know exactly what you mean.

For example, a thumbs-up might be seen as a show of positivity or support in American culture, but for Iranians, it is the equivalent of a middle finger. For Buddhists, pointing your feet at them is considered an insult, because they consider the feet the dirtiest part of the body.

“Yes Means No”

A lot of people might come from cultures that are averse to direct confrontation. During meetings, you might think that they actually have no problems with your plan, either because they nod their heads or are simply agreeing out of politeness. 

However, in China, it is a highly personal and contextual society. Many people say things that aren’t “implicit” so as not to start direct confrontations. That is why it’s important to talk to these members privately as well, to gauge their thoughts outside of a public setting.

Don’t Get Touchy

Generally speaking, always wait for the other party to do their greeting first. This lets you gauge if they are comfortable with things like handshakes, hugs, or pats on the back. Some cultures such as Italians, for example, are very intimate and even kiss each other on the cheek.

Other countries, such as Sweden, are averse to such intimate gestures. For them, it is only reserved for people close to them, not people they barely know. It’s always best that you adjust to the other party first, whenever possible.

 

Conclusion

Avoiding cultural faux pas is difficult, but not impossible. More than anything, most people already appreciate the extra steps you take to respect their culture. When you make a mistake, it’s good to apologize and make light of yourself. 

Additionally, they are going through cultural faux pas of their own when talking with you. In the end, it’s about setting boundaries and being honest about what to expect from each other.

To learn more about the different cultural pitfalls in business such as how to be a diverse recruiter or the racial wage gap, follow our blog here.

 

Written by: Chatty Garrate

When it comes to DEI, language matters…and it’s constantly evolving. Are you using the right terminology in your organization? Download our DEI Terminology Cheat Sheet and see how you stack up.

 

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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