Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Culturally insensitive things I've done lately

This is not my first time to the Middle East, and yet I still occasionally do really stupid things that are really only excusable if you're a novice 'round these parts. I'm blaming lingering jet lag or the heat or the humidity or the combination of the last two. Did you know that iGoogle Weather sometimes thinks it's raining here when really it's probably just the 100% humidity that tripped their rain sensors? I know, right?

Egregious Cultural Error #1 (for background, please consult the fourth bullet under the "Points of Etiquette" section here). I met the (Muslim) mom of one of Miriam's classmates for the first time yesterday. She offered her hand to shake and since I was carrying a bunch of hud with my right hand, I stuck out my left. Even as I was doing it, it was like it was happening in slow motion. My mind was yelling, "Nooooooo!!!!" even as my body kept on going. The mom didn't say anything about it but I'm pretty sure I at worst disgusted her and at best amused her with my insensitivity.  Please oh please let it be the latter.

Egregious Cultural Error #2. We live on campus at the university. Not only are a lot of our fellow residents from the West, but those who aren't are Westernized to at least some degree. So one day I wore a skirt that went to just below my knees. I would never have done this in any other Middle Eastern country we've lived in, but it was hot, and I figured I'd just be on campus all day anyway, so what's the big deal? Then I went to a grocery store in Sharjah. Like, regular Sharjah, not on campus. Before I went, I didn't even stop to remember that I was wearing what to the locals was a scandalous length of skirt. Let's just say that one of the ways you know you're doing it wrong is when you are the most immodestly dressed woman around. That was me that night, with my below-the-knee skirt and short-sleeved t-shirt. Heck, I was practically the only one with my entire face showing. Ugh, the humiliation.

Egregious Cultural Error #3. OK, would you believe me if I told you that the above error actually happened twice? Same skirt, even. I went straight from a university women's club social gathering to Ajman City Centre (not as conservative as Sharjah, but still). As soon as we arrived I realized what I was wearing and rolled my eyes at my (really, uncharacteristic for me, I promise) mistake. I hitched down (is that a term?) my skirt as best as I could but I still got a few looks. HOWEVER, I will have you know that I was NOT the most immodestly dressed woman there. I gave a little internal shout for joy when I saw a Southeast Asian woman wearing a fantastically inappropriate dress (short, sleeveless, low-cut, and sparkly gold). AND she was holding hands with her husband. Obviously she didn't see the sign about no overt displays of affection. So there.

Egregious Cultural Error #4. I still haven't figured out what the face-kissing routine is here. In Syria, it was one side, other side, and then back to the first side. In Jordan, they repeated the second side instead of going back to the first. Here, it seems like you can get away with only one kiss on one side? Maybe? This situation is disastrous if you mess it up so I really need to figure it out. So far I haven't become good enough friends with anyone that we are engaging in the face-kiss practice, so I have a little time.

Egregious Cultural Error #5. I always considered myself an especially sympathetic listener when it came to understanding people's non-native English. I mean, it's literally my job. I get paid to listen to non-native English speakers and then evaluate their skills. And yet, there are some people here who "speak" "English" and I cannot for the life of me understand them. I think I will develop a better ear over time but aye caramba, it is embarrassing to have to ask someone to repeat themselves four or five times.

(And I'm talking about people who do not speak Arabic so we don't have that to fall back on.)

What are your best and most culturally insensitive mistakes?


Sarah Familia said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who has problems with the face-kissing. I learnt the Syrian way, but then you were supposed to begin on the opposite cheek in Chile, so I got completely confused. And now in Italy you have to face kiss with both genders. I'm afraid half the branch thinks I'm trying to make out with them when I greet them on Sunday.

But I have to say the worst faux pas I've ever made (and the most excruciatingly long) was the time we inadvertently crashed our neighbors' dinner party:


Liz Johnson said...

In Mexico, it's one kiss on the right side of the cheek. If you're being particularly tender, you touch their shoulder when you do it.

Do you face-kiss with men and women?! No, right? Just women??

You know what's sad? I have probably done all sorts of crazy insensitive things and have never been aware enough to realize it. I will be far more aware of what hand I use to shake anybody's hand, though, whether they're Arab or not. Good to know.

Susanne said...

I love stuff like this! It's so funny to think of righteous (two Mormon services one week), wholesome Bridget as being the most scantily clad woman around! :-D You're so funny!

I guess my insensitive thing in Syria was threatening to touch (on the arm) a couple Muslim guys if they wouldn't allow us to pay for tea when we went to the café with them one evening.

My Syrian friend went to a Christian meeting in Germany last night and told me with shock, "I can't understand why western men only shake hands with you, but their women HUG YOU!" Ha, ha! Oops!

I never got the face kissing thing down, but I was in Syria for only 12 days. I'd usually just hug any woman who wanted to hug me. I was forewarned about not offering to shake guys' hands so I only did this if they offered first.

One guy must have felt sad about this because he would have shaken my hand, but noticed *I* did not offer mine.

This was the ONLY thing Samer instructed us about prior to our trip. He told me to tell Andrew not to shake hands with the women and for me not to shake hands with the men ... unless they first offered. (Which I think is against Western etiquette rules of the women being the ones to offer their hands first).

Hope your birthday has been special! Thank you for opening up your life to us so we can enjoy other cultures and events!

May God give you many more birthdays! :)

Craig said...

We have a native Spanish speaker in our ward who is trying so hard to speak English. And she is so proud of herself for her progress. So I feel especially bad having to ask multiple times for her to repeat, or to pretend I understand (and then get busted when a response is required).

Oddly, a couple of Spanish speakers have trouble understanding her Spanish, too. I guess there are many variants of Spanish.

The Johnsons said...

It's really fun to read your experiences and almost makes me wish I was out on another of our adventures...but then I remember how little I slept last night and how easy it will be to launder all those spit-uppy clothes, and how I can just zoom to the grocery store in my car and load up all the bags I want. And then I think, yeah maybe I can wait just a few more years :)

It is fun to live vicariously through you...thanks for being the courageous one!

Most cultural error was probably giving my not so wealthy Chinese friend a fairly expensive gift, so she felt she had to give me an equally expensive gift. I felt so bad!

Crys said...

I think my worst moment was when I yelled, "I hate Arab men!" in the grocery store. Obviously I was exaggerating but at that moment I would have given anything for a good old fashion line. Also do you remember the day we were walking up the hill looking for a taxi after swimming at the rich members indoor pool. I remember guys actually lining the street to watch one of our fellow BYU approved dressed girls flash her calves and elbows ;) I've heard it is pretty strict in oil countries. What is normal attire for you?

Julee said...

Happy Birthday (in the US)! Happy be-lated Birthday to you!

Kristen said...

How brilliant to have a specific hand reserved for "hygiene!" But then yes, talk about an insult...


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