Journeys in Culture

Encounters and Experiences with Culture and Ethnolinguistic People

Tips & Info

Cultural protocols exist in every culture.  Protocols come in a variety of forms – to name a few – greetings, gestures and body language, pointing, eye contact, eating manners, and expressing politeness.  We often go through life never recognizing how our behavior in these various non-verbal protocols may actually be offensive to some people.  For instance, did you know . . .
  1. GREETINGSGreetings are (1) friendly gestures (a cordial and often conventional gesture or expression used when welcoming, meeting, or addressing somebody), (2) welcoming somebody (an act of welcoming or addressing somebody with a greeting.  Some cultures place emphasis upon formal verbal greetings; whereas, other cultures downplay formal verbal greetings and use informal verbal greetings more (e.g. USA, Japan, Malaysia, etc.).  Non-verbal greetings often have culture specific meanings (e.g. waving, handshake, bowing, etc.).
  2. GESTURES AND BODY LANGUAGE  – Gestures and body language comes in the form of (1) body movement (a movement made with a part of the body in order to express meaning or emotion or to communicate an instruction) , (2) action communicating something (an action intended to communicate feelings or intentions).  Gestures and body language can convey wants (requests) and/or don’t wants (refusals).  They may also convey approvals and/or disapprovals, reluctance and/or confidence, listening and/or not listening, etc.   For instance, the nodding of one’s head, waving one’s hand, sitting/standing on the floor, wearing/not wearing shoes, crossing one’s legs, raising one’s hand to ask a question, etc. could all convey different meanings depending upon the cultural context.
  3. POINTING – In most Asian cultures, it is considered rude to point with your finger.  In some situations, if you want to point to something use your thumb with your fist closed.  In other situations, it might be more appropriate to point with a motion of one’s head.  Pointing is very culture specific and therefore one should know the context and appropriate way to point.
  4. EYE CONTACT – In an Asian context, making eye contact with people of the opposite gender is often inappropriate.  Walking down the street and smiling, waving, making eye contact with everyone is often not considered polite, it can even be offensive.  Just like pointing, the meaning of eye contact varies from culture to culture.
  5. EATING PROTOCOLS  – Eating protocols vary from people to people.  For instance, although using one’s hands in Japan to eat sushi is acceptable, it is more appropriate to use chopsticks.   Also, when serving another person, it is more appropriate to use the back end of the chopstick to place the sushi on the other person’s plate.  Moreover, one should not pass food from chopstick to chopstick – this is only done at funerals.  However, for Indians living in Southeast Asia, using one’s hands is appropriate.  In fact, it is the norm and not using one’s hands is often a sign of an outsider.  For some Chinese, chopsticks should never be placed pointing down in the bowl as it means bad luck will comes one’s way.  Instead, lay them flat on the top of the bowl.
All it takes is one inappropriate expression of these protocols and we might offend someone in another culture.