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?