Oops!

By Tricia Veldman

February 15, 2017 5 min read

Don't order a cappuccino after noon in Italy. Never leave chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice in Japan. Thumbs-up? Not in the Middle East.

It's only natural that each culture has its unique customs, traditions and even insults. Before embarking on a journey to any foreign land, it's always wise to do a little research. With countless rules and regulations from city to city, though, even the savviest travelers are apt to slip up on occasion. The good news is that our inherent human nature is generally forgiving. Though committing a cultural blunder may be embarrassing, a graceful recovery is certainly within reach.

How does one recover from a cultural faux pas? The first step is to simply acknowledge and admit the mistake. As a visitor in a foreign country, one should not let pride inhibit one's ability to admit fault. Honesty cannot be vilified in this scenario, as the traveler is a guest in someone else's home. The tourist is an outsider and, in order to be forgiven, must understand this fact.

According to George Odoi, a leader of tour groups in Ghana, it is culturally offensive in that country to eat, greet or accept items using one's left hand. The left hand is customarily used to clean oneself, so using it for other actions is considered unhygienic. Such is the case in several other African countries and in India, as well.

Now, in the case of a foreigner who learns of this custom three days into the trip and has been using the left hand for countless acts since arrival, how can the blunder be smoothed over? First, the foreigner should acknowledge the mistake. Admitting the error and taking personal responsibility conveys to the locals that the offender is genuinely contrite. For example: "I feel so silly. I realized that yesterday I paid you with my left hand. I had no idea until this morning what a mistake I made. In America, we use both hands to pay. I hope you can forgive my error." By explaining that this custom is atypical of one's own cultural upbringing, the tourist lets the local know that his or her intention was not to be rude.

Once it's clear that the act was not committed with malicious intent, the situation can be transformed from awkward to pleasant. How? By step two: asking the local for advice. People appreciate when others show genuine interest in understanding their culture. Asking why or how that particular tradition came about shows a sincere desire to learn more about a culture and its people. It's one thing to realize that an action is considered "bad," but it's another to go above and beyond and actually pursue the history behind it. For example: "I heard it's rude to leave chopsticks upright in a dish. Do you have any idea why?" That question could lead to an insightful discussion about Japanese culture. According to Japan-centric blogger Grace Buchele Mineta, leaving chopsticks upright is an action traditionally done at funerals. Doing so in casual settings thus represents bad luck. Locals generally enjoy sharing personal anecdotes and will appreciate an outsider's efforts in getting to understand them better. This can provide a unique opportunity to compare and contrast one's own culture with that of the locals. Perhaps the natives are interested in learning a thing or two about the tourist's country, as well.

One can smooth things over even further by asking for recommendations on avoiding future faux pas or inquiring about what other common mistakes foreigners make. This will not only show that one has sincere remorse for the blunder but also help prevent future mishaps from occurring.

The absolute worst course of action after making a cultural faux pas would be to insult the custom. A visitor should never insinuate that his or her own way of doing things is superior. Moreover, it is never the locals' fault if a visitor is unaware of their traditions. The guest must remember that being welcomed into a new territory requires that he or she adapt to those behaviors as much as possible. Should an error occur, taking responsibility and apologizing is usually enough to settle the situation.

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