How Not to Offend Your Host Country

When making a move abroad on business it’s easy to forget that different cultures have significantly different customs to your own. As an expat, however, it’s your responsibility to be very aware of all aspects of life in the country you’re moving to. One of the most dangerous and damaging things you could do is offend your host country.

Offense can be given in a variety of different ways: words and gestures could have different meanings, certain objects could be prohibited and, especially in countries where there’s a language barrier, an insult could be very close in pronunciation to an everyday object or phrase.

Words are the most obvious way to cause offense in your host country. Make an effort to know what words and phrases are considered offensive. In some cases the translation into English may seem harmless to you, but to those who live in your host country it could be greatly insulting. Similarly be careful of words that sound similar to everyday words in case you are very much misunderstood when speaking to business associates. In countries such as Turkey, when taken out for business meal it can be considered insulting for you to offer to pay the bill instead of them.

Gestures can also mean very different things in different countries. Often when faced with a language barrier, the first thing we do is resort to gesticulations of some sort, but what we consider harmless could deeply offend. For example a ‘V’ sign with your hand in America might mean peace, but elsewhere such as England or Australia it can be offensive. In China it is common to applaud, so you may find yourself greeted this way even by children – just remember to return it.

Most important when avoiding offense however is to know the laws of your host country. Particularly in the case of the Middle East, restrictions on women, religion and clothing can be severe. Ensure you do not carry around any items that are prohibited or dress inappropriately. Often in these countries ignorance is no excuse.

If you do offend, however seriously, apology is necessary. Simply demanding pardon based on ignorance is likely to cause further offense. Apologize profusely and try to explain your cultural difference. Perhaps explain what a certain word, phrase or gesture means in your own country. Communication is vital. If you are unsure then ask! Often you are likely to gain more respect from inquiring about a culture than blundering through it.

It’s inevitable that you will make some sort of cultural faux pas, even a very minor one, but if you’re prepared and willing to learn about the host country you now inhabit, your work placement is likely to be a success.

Posted in categories: Culture & Languages, International