Living abroad you are bound to make some type of cultural blunder. Some are minor errors and others are major embarrassments. I find it humbling on many levels.
In the beginning, you are trying to figure out the cultural behaviors and norms of your host country. If you are learning the language you will make grammar errors before becoming fluent in the language. Mistakes are bound to happen and communication breakdowns are part of the learning curve.
Having lived abroad for 22 years, I have gained a repertoire of fumbles. Some of my cultural mishaps remain etched in my memory. Here’s one episode from my sojourn in Tokyo that I’d like to share with you.
In Japan, it is customary to take off your shoes at the door entrance at many Japanese establishments. The floors are made out of tatami mats and are kept very clean. In some cases there are slippers provided for the guest to wear. Otherwise, you wear your socks or go bare foot.
In Japanese pubs, known as Izakayas, there are special slippers a person wears to use the toilette. You slip on the slippers before entering the bathroom and remove them immediately after exiting the bathroom.
Years ago, I was at an Izakaya and had to use the ladies room. I walked to the bathroom, slipped on the toilette slippers, utilized the ladies room, and then promptly walked back to the table without removing the toilette slippers. It wasn’t until a few minutes later did I realize my mistake. I quickly went back to return the slippers.
I could see by the waiters' faces they were appalled. The Japanese are generally polite and don’t make public displays of outrage. I immediately acknowledged my slip-up.
I lowered my head in shame, returned the slippers to the restroom, took deep bows to show sincerity, and cowered back to the table. I’m sure my gaffe didn’t endure us foreigners to the pub owners. I tried my best to save face.
Advice For Recovery
Here is want I know: When you make a cultural error whether it’s on a seismic scale or just a misstep, you need to acknowledge it, apologize, and make amends if necessary.
A good example of making amends is a story I can share about a German expat family living in America. One day the German kids ran amok in the neighbor’s garden. The father of the children brought over a bouquet of flowers and apologized to the neighbors.
It turned out the neighbors were also expats from England and lived far away from their children. The kind gesture initiated a dear friendship. The older English couple became surrogate grandparents to the German family’s children. They spent birthdays and special occasions together.
What I Learned
I have leaned that part of the journey of being an expat is cultural faux pas come with the territory and are part of the experience. Through this all, I have become more tolerate and understanding of intercultural differences.
The next time you are in a foreign land and make a cultural boo-boo, don’t be afraid to admit your fault. Most people are forgiving. Your honesty and integrity are at stake.
Over to You
Have you ever made a cultural blooper? How did you recover? Please share your story in with a comment below.