Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cultural differences


When we grow up in a single place and build our personality in a single environment, there's a lot of ideas that we receive from this society and which we do not question. For the most part, it's reasonable. We get taught subjects at school and our parents teach us how to behave. That's kind of standard.

Cultural differences

But it's not universal. And some bits of our cultures are just crazy. There's a reason for things to be a certain way, most of the time like "it used to be like that 1,000 years ago and we kept doing it like that". A particular example of this is the French number system and the multiples of 10. Just like in English language, the words used for 20, 30, 40... express an idea like "two-tens", "three-tens", "four-tens"... Except for 70, 80 and 90. The words used for these numbers are "sixty-and-ten", "4-twenties", and "4-twenties-and-ten". The reason for this is historic. A long time ago (which I'm too lazy to identify properly), the French were using a numeral system based on 20 rather than 10. And within such a system, you would be expected to count like this: sixty-eight, sixty-nine, sixty-ten, etc. So, these weird things left in the French language today are artifacts from the past.

When you travel a bit, you might visit Switzerland or Belgium, where French language is also spoken. The Swiss are the best students and they corrected all of that. To a Swiss, the words for describing 70, 80, and 90 are like "seven-tens", "eight-tens", and "nine-tens". Perfect! Not only is it perfect, I have also observed that it makes it easier for the brain to remember numbers that way. I suppose it is due to shorter words, of which sounds will take less brain space and will therefore be easier to remember. Belgians are between the Swiss and the French; they corrected 70 and 90 but still use 4-twenties for the number 80.

Another cultural difference I have observed is again about numbers in Thailand. When one counts numbers on his fingers in France, we count "1" on our thumb, "2" on thumb+index, and we go on until we reach "6" for which we start using 2 hands up until 10. In Thailand, the method is different. "1" is counted on the index alone, with the back of your hand towards you (or the palm of your hand towards the person you're talking to). "2" is counted on index+middle finger, then 3 and 4 will add the ring finger, then the pinkie, and finally 5 will bring out your thumb. Then, for 6, you will have to turn your hand around into a fist and with the palm facing you, and you'll only pull out your thumb. If you've done itch-hiking, the gesture with your thumb is like the Thai version of counting 6 on your fingers. And then of course, you'll add the other fingers one by one as you're counting upwards. This is a subject of confusion between Thai tourists travelling to Europe and European tourists travelling to Thailand. For example, if you ask for 2 mangoes and show your thumb+index with the interior of your hand towards a Thai salesperson, they will only notice your index and the direction of your hand. So it's as if you asked for 1 mango. Now, if you gestured the "2" with the back of your hand towards the salesperson, it's like the Thai version of "7".

This is "1" in Thailand

This is "1" in Europe but "6" in Thailand

This is "2" in Europe but "7" in Thailand

Some other difference, probably more well-known, is the distance around us that we consider as private space. French people generally want at least 80 cm of free space between them and the person they're speaking to, in order to feel comfortable. Some Asian cultures (Thai, Japanese) might require more distance. With other cultures (Dutch, Arabic...) this distance is much less and people will consider OK to be just 30 cm away from your face. This will feel uncomfortable and even aggressive or intrusive by French people. So, whenever you travel, observe how people do and either adapt to their standard or let them know about the cultural difference!

This one is hearsay, which I got from family members living in Brunei. In some places in Asia, when you pay with bank notes, it is a mark of politeness towards the salesperson to hand over your money (and pick up your change) with your 2 hands joined together. I think Europeans don't have any equivalent for this.

There are also some well-known differences regarding all the decorum around eating. Burping will be viewed as a mark of appreciation for a delicious meal in Brunei but will be frowned upon in the West. Being quiet during the meal will be viewed as a mark of politeness in Western high society but it will be viewed as a refusal to participate to social interactions in China. Instead, the Chinese will appreciate a loud and talkative meal mate.

In Europe, removing your shoes when you enter a house is not the rule everywhere. If a host wants people to remove their shoes, you will generally find cues about it like the presence of other abandoned shoes in the entrance, a shelf for leaving your shoes, or even the presence of slippers which you're intended to wear inside the house. On the other hand, if the host doesn't care, then the host is probably also wearing his shoes when he welcomes you inside his home. In the Far East and South-East Asia, removing your shoes is the rule everywhere, and the Japanese are absolutists about it. The Japanese perception of someone forgetting to remove his shoes is that this person is no better than an animal. You don't mess with the shoes' culture in Japan! And if you accidentally forgot, you'd better go out of your way to be forgiven. Shoes are serious business!

Cultural Similarity

There's 1 cultural item, however, which I have found to be present in all the cultures I have encountered (though now that I think of it, maybe Arabic culture is different). When people meet each other for the 1st time of the day, they could be just saying "hello". However, in most places you'll see people asking how you're doing. They rarely want to know how you're actually doing. It's just something that passed on through generations. Here's a list of these things I've observed:

  • American: "how d'you do?"
  • Belgian-French: "Ca va?"
  • Belgian-Dutch: "Hoe is't?"
  • Chinese: "Ni hao ma?"

  • Dutch: "Hoe gaat het?"
  • English: "How are you?"
  • French: "Comment ├ža va?"
  • German: "Wie geht's?"
  • South African: "how's it?"
  • Spanish: "Ola! Que tal?"
  • Thai: "Sabaidee mai?"
The most visible case of this, I found, is in South Africa where people will automatically answer "good and you?" even if you just told them "hello!" and they might feel a bit disconcerted for a second.


There are things in our cultures that we learnt as children but which hardly make sense. I mentioned examples with numbers but if you think of exceptions to the rule of grammar (or pronunciation), I'm sure you'll find other examples which have historic causes and are just weird. If children find something weird, there's a chance that they are right. They will still have to learn the proper weird way to do it, but their intuition is probably correct.

Also, when you travel, take some information from a travel book like Lonely Planet or from websites like Wikitravel. They can warn you in advance of the errors you should avoid.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
Erik Lallemand's blog by Erik Lallemand is licensed under
a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.