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Mind the Gaffe

(Telegraph 2007)
The importance of getting it right internationally

The plight of British primary school teacher Gillian Gibbons is extreme. Who could possibly have imagined that calling a teddy bear after a little boy in your class could land you in jail? But this shocking case highlights an important point: that those who travel and live abroad do need to take continual care, and never fall for the all-too prevalent myth that we now live in a ‘global village’ or a ‘flat world’.

            Those countries or states where versions of sharia law apply are clearly the ones to take most seriously. Visitors to Saudi Arabia, for example, should  remember that it is not just unacceptable but illegal for a man and a woman to hold hands in public. And this applies not just to the locals, but visitors too. Not so long ago an American who was seen kissing a fellow national of the opposite sex was jailed and subsequently deported.

            In the Far East, the potential penalties may not be so severe, but the offence given may be equally as great. Earlier this year, a legal action was brought against Liz Hurley for ‘breaching Hindu customs’ during  her own wedding in Rajasthan. The complainant, a businessman called Vishnu Khandelwal, was particularly incensed because Hurley not only drank alcohol, but insisted on wearing her shoes into the mandap (or sacred marriage place).

            Her insult was compounded when she kissed her groom, Arun Nayar, during the ceremony. Khandelwal had damning evidence to hand: pictures in Hello! and People magazines.  The case developed into a right old storm, with threats of a three year jail sentence and Hurley’s father-in-law allegedly disowning the couple.

            In the same month  Richard Gere caused similar trouble by kissing Celebrity Big Brother winner Shilpa Shetty during an Aids awareness rally in New Delhi. Demonstrators set light to effigies of the Hollywood heart throb, while protestors in other cities put the blame elsewhere, shouting ‘death to Shilpa Shetty’.

            Other high-profile gaffes have highlighted the kinds of intercultural messes any of us could get into. In June this year Cameron Diaz pitched up at Peru’s famous Machu Picchu carrying a bag that featured the Maoist slogan ‘Serve the People’. In a country that is only just getting over being terrorised by the Maoist Shining Path, this caused major upset. Diaz was forced to issue a statement apologizing ‘to anyone I may have inadvertently offended’. She had picked up the bag while on holiday in China and didn’t even know what the slogan meant, let alone its significance.

            Even the most powerful, well-resourced corporations have fallen into similar heffalump traps. When Pepsico launched in China with the cheery slogan ‘Come Alive With Pepsi’ they little realised that it would come out in Chinese as ‘Pepsi brings back your ancestors back from the dead.’ The Italian car firm Fiat’s launch of ‘the stylish Pinto’ in Argentina was somewhat compromised by the local slang use of pinto for the male organ. While the Dublin-based makers of the after-dinner liqueur Irish Mist were perhaps foolish not to have checked their German dictionary to discover that mist in that language means manure.

            Gestures are another area where care must be taken. As George W. Bush stood watching his second Inaugural Parade in January 2005, he held up a fist with the fore and little finger extended. Where he comes from this is the victory salute of the University of Texas Longhorns, the ‘hook ‘em horns’. Not so in Italy, where the very same sign – also called  ‘the horns’ – can imply that a man is a cuckold. Beamed around the world on international television, the sign also made headlines in Norway, where it’s the sign of the devil, more often used by fans of dodgy heavy metal groups than world leaders.

            We may laugh at the gaffe-prone President, but it’s all too easy to do the same. An Argentinian I met the other evening, newly arrived in London,  explained how he was put right in bar when he waved two fingers to order a couple more drinks. Fortunately  his waitress explained his error before he got into any  trouble. Americans travelling the world should watch out for their OK sign, where forefinger meets the thumb in a tight circle. In Portugal of Greece it means ‘no good’, while in places as different as Turkey, Malta and Brazil the gesture suggests you are comparing someone to the filthiest part of their anatomy.  And if you’re ever travelling in Iran, take similar care with the cheery ‘thumbs up’. Known as the bilakh, it means, literally, ‘Sit on this!’

            Even the most innocent-seeming and familiar movements can cause trouble.  In the Middle East, the sole of the foot is unclean, so pointing it at someone is insulting. When the Iraqis vented their fury against the deposed Saddam Hussein back in 2004, you may remember,  they beat his effigy with their shoes.  In Buddhist countries it’s the other end of the body you should watch out for, as. the head is thought to be the seat of the soul. ‘Bawling out a taxi driver in Bangkok while patting him on the head in front of his friends and you  could get yourself killed,’ writes a friend resident in Thailand.

            Most us know that they bow to each other in Japan, but how many of us are aware  how seriously they take the ritual of handing over business cards. The card – or meishi – should be studied for several long seconds before being put away carefully in a wallet or dedicated card-holder. Just smiling and stuffing it in your back pocket would be seen as a terrible mark of disrespect, while dropping it or tossing it to one side is an outright insult.

            Even generosity can be misinterpreted. At this time of year, a bunch of chrysanthemums might seem like a fine thing to take along to a dinner party. But not in many of the countries of mainland Europe, where they’re for funerals only. Gifts provide even more fertile opportunity for disaster. A leather wallet in India, a clock in China, silver in Mexico – all are wrong, while in Japan it’s the opening of a gift in front of the giver that’s the most serious mistake, as a show of  disappointment would be an unbearable loss of face.

            If it’s hard sometimes to take seriously the long-established rules and traditions  of other societies, it’s always as well to remember what causes outrage at home. Just think how we react here when we see someone trying to jump a queue, even an informal one at the counter of a bar. Imagine them giving us the V-sign as they did it, and we can start to understand how deep our local cultural training can reach.

            Having said which, there must be plenty of people, even in Khartoum, who find Ms Gibbons’s current circumstances utterly beyond comprehension.


 1. Blowing your nose into a handkerchief in Japan
The Japanese  call snot hanakuso – literally ‘nose shit’. They find the idea of walking around with a cloth full of hanakuso in your pocket disgusting.

 2.  Getting your host’s name the wrong way round in China
 In the Far East name order is reversed, with the surname first, then a middle generational name, then a given name. So calling Mr Li Wong Chee of Beijing ‘Mr Chee’ would be like calling Mr John William Smith of London, ‘Mr John’.

3. Confusing a Canadian with an American
Or a Paraguayan with a Uruguayan, an Englishman with an Irishman, or an Australian with a Kiwi. Neighbours are always the twitchiest about each other.

4. Keeping your shoes on in a temple or home in the Far East
Take them off at the door, in everywhere from Burma to Japan. It’s wise to be wearing clean socks – and do remember where you put them. It’s an awful bore to get back to the hotel and realise you’re wearing Mr Yamazaki’s brogues.

5. Looking at your feet when drinking a toast in Scandinavia
Right  across Northern Europe,  you should always meet your host’s eye when saying Skål or Prost!  And the drink must then go down in one. If you fail to do this, the Germans say, seven years of bad sex will follow.

6. Teasing an Australian about how useless their home team is
Sport is the one sacred activity Down Under. The Aussies love to tease, particularly if you’re a visiting Pom, but teasing them back has its limit – and this is it. 

7. Giving a bottle of vintage malt whisky in a pigskin bottle holder to an Arab host
If your Muslim host drinks, he certainly doesn’t do so publicly, so drawing attention to his private love of Glenfiddich is not the best  idea. Like the dog, the pig is unclean in Arab countries, so however beautifully made the ‘executive bottle holder’, pigskin only adds to the offence.

8.  Being on time for an Argentinian dinner party
Dinner in Latin America is always late, but you should arrive later. Turning up on time isn’t regarded as polite – they’ll just think you’re greedy.

9. Eating with your left hand in Africa and India
In parts of these continents where they routinely eat with their hands, you must use the right one - namely the right one. The left is the ‘unclean’ hand, reserved for a related function a few hours later.

10. Leaving your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice in China or Japan
Of all chopstick no-nos this is the worst, as it  mimics a Japanese funeral rite, when chopsticks and rice are left by the bedside of the newly deceased.

Mark McCrum’s Going Dutch In Beijing, the International Guide to Doing the Right Thing  is published by Profile Books (£9.99)

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