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Offence or Misunderstanding

A Cross-Cultural Dilemma
Offence or Misunderstanding: A Cross-Cultural Dilemma
27 Feb 2015

Offence or Misunderstanding: A Cross-Cultural Dilemma

People can be rude, irreverent, demeaning, and disrespectful. The problem is that we interpret these behaviors in the context of how we were raised. What is considered rude in one country might be an expression of respect in another. So when you mix with individuals from other cultures, how can you know if you’re being insulted intentionally or just misreading the signs?

Misunderstandings can easily escalate. Take the example of an American meeting a new team member from Egypt. Put yourself in the shoes of each of them.

You meet your new team member from Egypt.

He seems happy to meet you and begins a warm conversation with you. But something isn’t quite right; he’s standing too close, less than an arm’s length. His eye contact is unwavering and voice booming.

You take a step back and avert your eyes from his intense gaze, and he responds by taking a step forward. He’s in your face!

Again you step back, hoping he’ll get the point.

His initial enthusiasm fades.


You meet your new team member from the United States.

 He seems happy to meet you and a conversation ensues. But something isn’t quite right; he’s acting irritable, doesn’t bother to make much eye contact as you talk, and even conceals his breath.

 He coldly backs away. He may have a problem with you, but you’re determined to show you are open to friendship.

He rudely backs away again!

The thought races through your mind, “There might be something to this Ugly American stereotype.”


In several Middle Eastern cultures, one indicator of appropriate space between male colleagues is to be close enough to smell each other’s breath. Men maintain strong eye contact and speak with more volume than most Americans. This is respectful and demonstrates a good relationship. Stepping back out of that space can be offensive, as it telegraphs disinterest, distrust, or even disgust. Obviously, neither man in the above example went into the meeting intending to insult the other.

In most business, social, and health situations, both you and your counterpart are there for a mutually beneficial reason. It could be to negotiate a deal, forge a partnership, address a common issue, or have a good time. 

If you see a behavior that at first triggers feelings of irritation or offense, ask yourself, “I wonder why he did that?” This prevents you from committing an error in judgment called attribution. If you have ever had a good deed misinterpreted by the receiver, you have been the victim of attribution error.

If you see a behavior that at first triggers feelings of irritation or offense, ask yourself, “I wonder why he did that?”

Pondering why the other person said or did something seemingly offensive acknowledges that your gut feeling may be wrong. You won’t have your answer immediately, but you can better focus on your primary reason for talking in the first place.

A doctor who diagnoses an Asian patient of a certain illness may be surprised to see her react with a smile. The doctor who avoids rushing to judgment will later learn that the smile may very well have been a sign of intense anxiety rather than apathy. The woman certainly wants treatment for her illness.

Of course, anyone can be intentionally disrespectful or insulting; however, seeing a behavior repeated by other members of the culture in the same context reinforces that it may simply be customary and not intended to be inappropriate. The converse would also be true. A little research before and after an intercultural encounter can shed light on these differences. This might include gleaning insights from a trusted acquaintance belonging to the culture in question.

The next time you find yourself put off in a cross-cultural situation, remember the positive reason that bought you together in the first place. Avoid jumping to conclusions by acknowledging “strange” behaviors are likely tied to cultural differences, and follow up with a little research so you are better equipped for your next encounter.


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