What to Do When You've Made a Cultural Faux Pas
It’s the moment every traveler dreads. It seems to play out in slow motion: You’ve offended someone, completely unintentionally, and you’re not sure what to do next. Maybe you accidentally patted a child on the head, pointed your feet the wrong way, or simply misunderstood someone’s instructions. In any case, you’ve violated an unspoken cultural law—and you’re totally mortified.
I’ve been there, too. In my travels, I’ve accidentally used the “wrong hand” to shake or eat, I've made people “lose face” by not realizing I needed to acknowledge their VIP status, and I've even been accused of being bad luck because my taxi broke down while chugging up a steep hill.
So, believe me—even with the most thoughtful research, consideration, and travel experience, you’re bound to commit a cultural faux pas at some point. And while it might be embarrassing, it’s also not the end of the world. Here’s how to bounce back with grace and continue your journey, having learned a little bit more about your host culture.
1. Understand Your Mistake (or Try To)
Sometimes you’ll know exactly what you did wrong the moment it happens, like when I reached down to pat a small child on the head because she was so cute. In the West, this is okay. But not in Laos—in certain Hill Tribe cultures, touching a child’s head gives her a bad omen.
Other times, you’ll have no idea what cultural code you’ve violated—like when I got an screaming call at 3 AM from my caterer in Thailand wanting her rice cooker back, even though she’d said I didn’t need to drop it off until the weekend. I had taken her instructions at face value, but turns out, it’s common courtesy to drop things off the next day regardless of what’s said, and she assumed I was keeping it for good.
Whatever the case, try to figure out what exactly you’ve done wrong, and how the locals interpret your actions. Sometimes they’ll just smile, and brush it off a faux pas. Other times, the offended person may try to make you feel ashamed. When in doubt, talk to local friends and colleagues for fresh perspectives on how severe your action was, and how to remedy the situation (and avoid a similar one in the future).
2. Make Peace—and Laugh at Yourself
Then, do whatever it takes to make peace. Knowing how to say “I’m sorry” in the local language goes a long way (it’s definitely better than trying to express it over and over again in English). Sometimes you’ll have to re-prove your merits, and sometimes small tokens—like sweets from the market in Southeast Asia—are enough to make everyone friends again.
In other cases, you may need to offer to “undo” what you did, which could involve participating in a ritual to restore good luck or replacing an object that you broke. When a German friend, in front of our Burmese hosts, cracked a joke about enjoying the Coca-Cola and Lays potato chips that had been offered to the Buddha statue for lunch, we ended up making a very large offering of our own to fend off their disappointment. (A word of caution: Make sure your jokes are in the right cultural context—or just keep them private.)
Sometimes you simply need to give the moment some time and space. In the meantime (even though it may be frustrating or tedious at first), learn to laugh at yourself, and allow others the opportunity to poke fun at the strange foreigner’s mistake. Cultural mishap stories are even considered a badge of honor in many travel circles!
I’ll share first: My first time in Malaysia, I was served a spicy grilled fish wrapped in a banana leaf. Not knowing what to do, I ate the little packages placed before me—in their entirety. The maid ran in shouting, "no, no!” But it was too late: I had eaten the wrapper. She still enthusiastically tells the story to everyone who comes to the house.
3. Move On
In a diverse world, cultural mistakes are inevitable while traveling—but that’s no reason to stay home (or hide in your hotel room). So, after you’ve made amends, don’t dwell on your blunder! As a foreigner, the locals likely allow you some room for mistakes and will probably understand even what seemed to you like an earth-shattering faux pas. Learn from your errors, try to avoid them in the future, and share the lessons you discover with others.
Every traveler is an outsider at some point (isn’t that part of the fun?), so don’t let cultural differences keep you from continuing the adventure.
Photo courtesy of Zoetnet.
About The Author
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.