Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
Introduction to the Revised Edition
How Is Multicultural Manners, Revised Edition, the Same as the First Edition?
How Does Multicultural Manners, Revised Edition, Differ from the First Edition?
How This Book Is Structured
Part 1 - The New Rules of Communication
Body Language
Heads Up, Down, or Sideways?
High Five
Giving Change
Physical Contact
Sign of the Cross
Hands off the Head
Signs of Affection
Crooked Finger
Eye Contact
Lining Up
One at a Time
Child-Rearing Practices
Lazy New Mom
Sharing the Bed
Breast Milk
Classroom Behavior
Enrichment Activities
Special Education
Fear of Authority
Student Participation
Corporal Punishment
Respect for Teachers
Teacher Knows Best
Clothing and Jewelry
Hats Off—Not!
Six-Pointed Stars
Boutique Boo-boos
Unsoulful Soles
Donkey Beads
Glass-Bead Necklaces
Dress for Respect
Green Hats
Red Ink as Death Sign
Light Blue
White Bonnets
Wedding Guests Wearing White
Black at a Chinese Wedding
Yellow Tags
Cracked Eggs
Refusing Food
Changing Food Habits
Offering Food
Milk Intolerance
What Makes a Meal?
Food Taboos
Making Eating Noises
Cleaning Your Plate
Boxes of Food
Food and Politics
Fast-Food Bags
Food as Medicine
Yellow Flowers
White Flowers
Funeral Flowers
Gift Taboos
White Envelopes
Refusing a Gift
Birthday Cake
Health Practices
Misunderstanding the Doctor’s Orders
Heart Transplants and Licorice
Hospital Accommodations
Ignoring the Baby
Alternative Healers
Sacrificing a Rooster
Physical Examinations
Birth Attendants
Prayer Position
Birth Control
No Heroic Measures?
Jumping over Fires
New Year’s Offerings
First Foot
Sweeping Away the Luck
Luck and Supernatural Forces
Permanent Wave
Hot Rocks
The Voodoo Squad
Feng Shui
Moving and the Almanac
Numbers in Photos
Odd or Even?
Black Magic
Red Envelopes
Baby Furniture Delivery
Evil Eye
Male/Female Relations and Gender Issues
Gender Expectations
Lesbian Bridesmaid
AIDS Education
Spousal Abuse
Romantic Implications
Hospital Roommates
Child Custody
Home Alone Together
Traffic Violations
Points of View
The Qur’an (Koran)
Japanese Business Cards
Temporary Nuns
Business Practices
Sealing a Deal
Welcoming Home Ceremonies
Birthday Dates
Political Differences
Shoveling Dirt on the Coffin
Post-September 11
Race Manners
Green Card
Mosque Phobia
Bridge Builders of Anchorage
Math Skills
False Assumptions
Being on Time
Dropping In
Taboo Times
Verbal Expressions
Complimenting a Baby
Beating around the Bush
Giving Praise
Too Friendly
Forms of Address
Naming Traditions
“No Molesta”
Compliments about Appearance
Yes or No?
Can’t Say No
Believing What They Say
Part 2 - Clearing Cultural Confusions
A Quick Reference Guide
South Asians
Southeast Asians
The Balkans
Independent Members of the Former USSR
Middle Easterners
About the Author


El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina
Los Angeles
for providing me with the most exciting journey—
without need of passport or luggage.

This list is long with names of colleagues, students, friends, relatives, and readers of my Los Angeles Times column, in short, all those folks who gave me wonderful stories for this book or reactions to particular issues. I thank you all:
Elizabeth Adams, Ph.D.; Jesus R. Aguillon; Chelo Alvarez; Navneet S. Arora; John Aventino; Ana Balzer; Abot Bensusan; Andrea Berne, R.N.; Sharon Birnkrant; Betty Blair; Linda Burns Bolton, Ph.D., Director of Nursing Education, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles; Stephen V. Bomse; LuAnn Boylan; Judy Bravard; Milada Broukal; Lise Buranen; Darcel Linh Cao; Amy Catlin, Ph.D.; Susan Daniels; Esther De Haro; Sgt. Mark Dallezotte, San Diego Police Department; Linh M. Diep; Shirlee Dresser; Hoa Duong; Minh Duc; Isabel Elac; Robin Evanchuk, Ph.D.; Susan Fein; Terry Flores; Ysamur Flores-Peña, Ph.D.; Natalie Flyer; Kathleen Flynn, Ph.D.; Yvonne Freeman; Frank Heron of the Syracuse (NY) Herald Journal; Yolanda Galvan; William L. Garrett; Julia Gavilanes; Jeanne Gee; Mary Georges; Ingo Giani; Clarice Gillis; Sandy Glickman; Dale Gluckman; Lorenzo Gonzalez; Lin Griffith; Anahid Grigorian; Nelson Gutierrez; Alice Thuc Ha; Janice Nghi Nha Ha; Stephanie Hang; Jayasri Hart, Ph.D.; Judith Haut, Ph.D.; Alan Hedman, Ph.D.; Carole and Isaac Haile Selassie; Officer Abdiweli Heibeh, San Diego Police Department; Jeff K. H. Hsu; Detective Paul Jean-Louis, Miami-Dade Police Department; Marjorie Keyes, R.N.; Ann Kiuchi; Venida Korda; Carolyn Krueger; John Kusmiss, Ph.D.; Han Lam; Ceci Ledezma; Kuang-Hua Liu; Ada Lopez; Emma Louie; Letty Maravilla; Roobina Markarbabrood; Joanne Marshall; Richard E. Marshall; Mika Matsui; Quinn McDonald; Rabbi Levi Meier, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles; Doug Metz; Robert A. Miller; Rosa Montes De Oca; Vivian Moore; Patricia Morales; Anna María Wong Mota; Than Ha Nguyen; Raihana Niazi; Seung-Young Oh; Michi Okano; Nanelle Oropez; June Parris-Miller; Alberto Perez; Joel T. Pham; Tony Phuong; Sheila M. Pickwell, Ph.D., CFNP; Brin Pime; Dorothy Pittel; Morris Polan; Patrick Polk, Ph.D.; Bunny Rabiroff; Buddy Roberts; Malcolm Roberts; Alice Roy, Ph.D.; Arpi Sarafian, Ph.D.; Richard Seltzer; Dong-Jin Seo; Kathy Shannon; Stan Sherer; Linda Wong Smith, President, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California; Mark Stehle; Bill Sterling; Theresa Sterling; Yale Strom; Edward Sun; Frances Tally, Ph.D., and the UCLA Archive of Popular Beliefs and Superstitions; Satoshi Tanaka; Rosemarie Taylor, R.N., North Dade County Florida Health Center; Leilei Thein; Teresa Toribio; Linh Tran; Tai Truong; Lucia van Ruiten; Scarlet Vartanian; Celín Vasquez; Marie Vester; Denh Voong; Alan Voun; Jennifer Warren; Sammy Tone-Kei White; Christiana Wise; Dolores Wong; Pat Wong; Tong Yin; Wilhelmina Ramos York; Fay Zachary; Magda Zelinska-Ferl, Ph.D.
Special words of gratitude go to my medical consultants and dear friends Karl Seligman, M.D.; and Rachel Spector, R.N., Ph.D. I am also fortunate to have other knowledgeable buddies on whom I depend: Virginia Crane; Marilyn Elkins, Ph.D.; and Montserrat Fontes. Their consultations and checking of the manuscript often rescued me from myself. Jan Steward gets a special nod for being the ever-present voice on the other end of the phone line (for over 50 years), to discuss myriad issues. Cheryl Rilly and Janice Garey were there for me, too, offering ideas and support. Additionally, Phyllis Roberts, graphic artist, receives my applause for her wonderful map. I am indebted to all of you.
And what would I do without the family? I pay tribute to Harold, sweetheart of a husband, eager to make a last-minute library trip or to bring in take-out dinners; to “the kids,” Mark, Carol, Andrea, Amy, Julio, and Leila—suppliers of leads, anecdotes, and advice; to my brother Mickey, who jumps in to assist no matter what the venture.
Here’s a toast to Sheree Bykofsky, capable agent and enthusiastic ally, alongside her terrific associates, Janet Rosen and Megan Buckley. Thanks also to Tom Miller, executive editor at John Wiley & Sons, who encouraged me to write this second edition. And a special note of appreciation goes to editor Teryn Johnson, who patiently dealt with my time compulsions and responded ably and quickly to my concerns.
To everyone: gracias, danke, merci, arigato.


Introduction to the Revised Edition

While in a hospital cafeteria, I looked for tea to go with my sandwich. I tapped the shoulder of a man standing in front of me in the checkout line. “Excuse me. Can you please tell me where the tea is?”
He wheeled around. He was Chinese and clearly offended by my question. Emphatically he answered, “I don’t drink tea.”
I felt embarrassed. Of course, by only seeing his back I had no clue that he was Chinese. By asking him about tea it seemed as if I was making a stereotypical assumption about his foodways. Obviously, that irritated him. Despite my innocence, I felt guilty. What irony! I’m supposed to have heightened sensitivity about avoiding cross-cultural blunders, but in this situation nothing could rescue me.
Nonetheless, as important as it is to be cross-culturally savvy, equally important is the ability to laugh at oneself. Blunders don’t have to turn into world wars. As long as we maintain a sense of humor, mistakes may even serve to strengthen bonds, as they did in the following situation.
I arranged to interview a Hmong family for my Multicultural Celebrations book. I had read that they remove their shoes indoors, and when I arrived at their home I saw a pile of shoes outside the front door. Feeling smug about having prepared for the visit, I took off my sandals. Lia stood at the door protesting that it was unnecessary, but I wanted to show her I knew about Hmong customs. To my chagrin, when I entered her living room filled with family, no one was barefoot except me. They thought it was comical. I did, too.
I was also able to turn it around and make fun of myself, breaking the ice as I interviewed them about Hmong weddings.

How Is Multicultural Manners, Revised Edition, the Same as the First Edition?

Basically, this is still a how-to book—how to get along with others who are culturally different. As before, it is not targeted just to those who travel or conduct international business. Cultural information has many applications: To help interact more effectively with new populations from East Africa, the San Diego Police Department has created a videotape for officers about the customs and folkways of these recent residents; the U.S. Marine Corps offers cultural information to its occupational forces in Iraq, counseling them on do’s and don’ts for their own safety and to increase rapport with the locals. Moreover, Lt. Col. Michael T. Mahoney, the U.S. Army commanding officer of Forward Operating Base Thunder in Iraq, has worked hard to absorb Iraqi customs and etiquette. His motivation? To win the peace.
So, my goal is still to demystify the behaviors of people of different cultural backgrounds. Holocausts and ethnic cleansings are monstrous results of people who refuse to accept those unlike themselves in religious practice, language, or color. Instead, I’d like to increase appreciation for all peoples and emphasize that showing respect for differences usually creates respect in return.
Mainly, however, the information is relevant to ordinary Americans, for we all deal daily with those who are culturally different: in the workplace, the neighborhood, and perhaps even our own families. Since one in nine U.S. residents was born in another country, and the total foreign-born population now exceeds 33 million with an estimated 1.3 million immigrants arriving annually, we regularly encounter people who are culturally different more frequently than in the past. In 2004, more than 70 percent of the residents of Elmhurst, Queens, New York, were foreign born. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050 the Hispanic and Asian American populations will triple.
My own awareness of multicultural issues developed over more than twenty-five years as a folklorist teaching at various colleges in the Los Angeles area, later collecting first-person stories about cross-cultural miscommunication, particularly from non-native English speakers. For eight years I wrote a twice-monthly “Multicultural Manners” column for the Los Angeles Times about the ways that cultural differences sabotage effective communication, emphasizing the “what went wrong?” in each situation. In 1998, the column and the original Multicultural Manners book received an award from the Los Angeles County Department of Human Relations for contributions toward promoting intergroup harmony. For me as a folklorist, this award acknowledges the importance of knowing about others’ customs and beliefs.
This knowledge and this book do not venture to cure racism, nor is the book intended as a finger-pointing book of “shoulds.” Rather, it points to cross-cultural hot spots and suggests methods of creating respect for diversity. The goal is to help identify what went wrong in cross-cultural interactions that failed and to help avoid future blunders.
Every part of our planet today is multicultural. Even the most isolated, such as North Korea, has a small Chinese community and a few ethnic Japanese. Yet for some, the word “multiculturalism” has become a dirty word—the “M” word. Diana Eck, Harvard Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, illuminates the bias against multiculturalism: “Some people mistake it for a political platform rather than a social reality.” Readers of my Los Angeles Times column occasionally protested that reality: “They’re in our country now. Let them adapt to our ways. Why should we have to adjust to them?”
Of course, no one has to adjust to newcomers in a society, but those who do are more likely to reap rewards. It’s all quite pragmatic. Having information about other people’s folkways can improve human relations—as those who work in the business world have known for some time. In California, Rose Hills Memorial Park provides incinerators for bereaved Chinese families who burn paper money to ensure a happy afterlife. To honor the Chinese/ Vietnamese Lunar New Year 2000, Year of the Dragon, certain J.C. Penney’s distributed beautifully illustrated dragon posters. Western Union and State Farm Insurance gave out traditional good-luck red envelopes to Lunar New Year celebrants. Responding to cultural differences of customers, clients, employees, patients, students, neighbors, and family pays off!
Increasingly, in more and more parts of this country, there is an overwhelming quantity of cultural information to absorb and accept. Pity the latest immigrants who, in order to get along, must become accustomed not only to mainstream rules but also to those of other newcomers as well. Think about the Mexican cook in a Pakistani restaurant who must learn English and master Muslim food taboos at the same time.
According to Eck, “It’s one thing to be unconcerned about or ignorant of Muslim or Buddhist neighbors on the other side of the world, but when Buddhists are our next-door neighbors, when our children are best friends with Muslim classmates, when a Hindu is running for a seat on the school committee, all of us have a new vested interest in our neighbors, both as citizens and as people of faith.”
As a folklorist, I delight in learning about cultural differences in customs and beliefs. Nonetheless, I know that these differences sometimes cause people who are unacquainted with the significance of particular acts to respond negatively. Therefore, I wanted to use my expertise to explain unfamiliar practices. However, I hope that I have not inadvertently created or reinforced stereotypes. Moreover, I have tried to avoid generalizations, yet some were necessary to make the book useful. Accordingly, based on my research, the guidelines apply to the majority of the people to whom they refer. Treat these rules as general principles, but remember that there will be exceptions. No blanket statement can apply to everyone.
I have also tried to be sensitive to sexist issues, but I have had to be forthright in differences in gender issues that exist for people coming from many countries outside the United States. In addition, I have strived throughout to use non-value-laden language. I have avoided the use of the word superstition, for one person’s superstition is another person’s belief.
Academic training in anthropology and folklore has influenced my emphasis on cultural relativity—attempting to see the validity and function of cultures without value judgment. I would like readers also to avoid being judgmental. Despite this desire to be objective, I know it is more an ideal than a reality. The outlooks of all of us have been shaped by our backgrounds and have given us particular lenses through which we view the world.
One of my greatest apprehensions is that I will appear patronizing by encouraging others to bend over backwards to understand the behavior of newcomers. This deliberate attempt to comprehend unfamiliar behavior is never intended to be insulting. I only want to cast some illumination upon cultural rules and traditions. Be that as it may, my concern is that these good intentions may boomerang.
I wrote Multicultural Manners because I wanted to ease the conflicts and misunderstandings that happen to all of us every day. My experience as a teacher has convinced me that we really want to understand and accept one another; most of our failures to do so stem from ignorance rather than from bad intentions. Finally, this book is my attempt to guide well-meaning people such as you through the increasingly complicated labyrinth of modern life.

How Does Multicultural Manners, Revised Edition, Differ from the First Edition?

In the first Multicultural Manners, most cultural mishaps occurred in the United States. The emphasis was on groups of immigrants who arrived in the last three decades of the twentieth century, with many Asian and Latino examples. This time, I have broadened the scope to include some of the newer arrivals from Ethiopia, Kosovo, and Bosnia, as well as incidents occurring in Albania, Azerbaijan, Albania, Nepal, and Spain. To make the book more timely, I have added stories about reactions post-September 11 as well as misunderstandings about lesbian relationships, children with autism, and people with AIDS.
Because I discovered that readers savored the stories of the original book, I have added many more true-life anecdotes. In order to accommodate this expansion, I eliminated other sections on rules for holidays, worship, and multicultural health practices.
Our world has changed dramatically since the first edition. September 11, 2001, turned our lives upside down. Until then, Al Qaeda and the Taliban were not part of our vocabulary. Today, Baghdad, Kabul, and Islamabad are commonplace names, yet most of us know little about the people who live there. For this reason I have created a new section: Part 2, Clearing Cultural Confusions. It gives easy-to-understand information about the international players affecting our daily lives, such as Africans, Asians, the Balkans, independent members of the former USSR, and Middle Easterners. The section has two functions: an overview of native cultures and customs as well as the numbers living in the United States.

How This Book Is Structured

Part 1, The New Rules of Communication, organizes miscommunications according to major issues, for example, Body Language, Child-Rearing Practices, Classroom Behavior, Clothing and Jewelry, and so on. Examples follow each heading. Guidelines or generalizations are marked with bullets. Throughout the book, topics are consistently cross-referenced.
Guidelines are not absolutes. You may read parts of this book and say, “That’s not true. My brother-in-law never does that.” There will be exceptions to every rule because conduct differs with individuals. Furthermore, the acculturation process is not completely predictable. Many variables influence how quickly a person replaces traditional behavior with the new country’s customs and values. Much depends on the length of time a person has been residing in the United States. Naturally, the longer people have been here, the more likely they will be affected by American culture, but even that is not inevitable.
Part 2, Clearing Cultural Confusions, is a handy reference guide and brief overview of people about whom we need to know more. Within each designated geographical area, populations are broken down into ethnicities, languages, religions, customs, and numbers from that area who are now living in the United States. More specific information is given in the introduction to that section, and a map is included.


While the majority of the information has been taken from my personal archives and field research, other books, pamphlets, and articles from newspapers, magazines, and journals were consulted. All are documented in the bibliography.


If you discover that I have omitted an issue of importance to you or if you wish to share your experiences with me, I would be delighted to hear from you. Contact me in care of Teryn Johnson, editor, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 111 River Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030, or you can contact me through my Web site: www.norinedresser.com.

The New Rules of Communication

Body Language

Heads Up, Down, or Sideways?

(See also: Yes or No?, p. 193; Albanians, p. 233.)
Covering a 1997 Albanian uprising, American reporters in the capital, Tirana, ask a driver if he can take them to the airport. The driver shakes his head from side to side, so they look for another driver and receive the same response. After several negative encounters, they discover that the drivers were available, after all.
• In Albania, shaking the head from side to side means “yes” and nodding the head up and down means “no.”
Pity the poor American husband taking his visiting Albanian in-laws to the airport for their return home. When the attendant checked their luggage, she asked the usual questions: Did you pack your own bags? Have you left your bags unattended at any time? Did anyone ask you to carry something on board for them? Imagine the attendant’s alarm as the Albanians nodded their heads up and down. Picture the son-in-law’s panic trying to convince her that Albanians shake their heads in the opposite direction from Americans.
While in a Bulgarian restaurant, American tourists asked if stuffed cabbage was available. The waiter nodded “yes,” but the stuffed cabbage never appeared. The disappointed diners learned that when the waiter shook his head “yes,” he meant that they had none.
• Reversal of meaning of yes/no head gestures occurs in Bulgaria, too.
• People from Southern India tilt their heads to one side or both to indicate agreement.
• On many South Pacific Islands, they signal yes by raising their eyebrows.

High Five

Community leaders arrive for a meeting in Las Vegas. Karl, an African American director of an educational institution, attends and is greeted by Henry, the white chairperson. Henry slips into a mock African dialect and says, “Hey, bro, how’s it going?” He follows with a high-five hand slap and walks away. Karl is aghast.
Angrily, Karl explains to a colleague, “This is supposed to be a professional organization and Henry assumes that because I’m African American, I come from the ghetto. I’m not, and in my home, I was never allowed to do that handshake or to speak jive.”
Karl had an upper-class background, had attended the best schools, and had worked in high-level positions at blue-chip corporations. Although Karl recognized that Henry acted from ignorance, not malice, it did not lessen the insult. Henry’s stereotypical assumption may have cost him an important business contact.
• Be careful when appropriating the jargon or gestures of other ethnicities, lest it be considered patronizing. These actions can sabotage a relationship.

Giving Change

Cheryl regularly shops for cleaning supplies at a local Michigan Dollar Store. Usually the manager, Mr. Hakim, puts her change on the counter instead of in her hand. One day, she has the exact amount for her purchase. She hands him a five-dollar bill and while dropping eighteen cents into his hand, her fingers accidentally touch his palm. Mr. Hakim recoils. Thinking she has accidentally scratched him, she says, “Whoops, sorry!” Looking back on the incident, she realizes that Mr. Hakim didn’t want to be touched.
The next time Cheryl shops there, she places her money on the counter. Mr. Hakim smiles, something he has never done before, as he takes her money and in return places her change on the counter.
• Mr. Hakim is a Muslim, and it is taboo for unrelated males and females to have body contact. (See also: Greetings, p. 15.)
• Unrelated Orthodox Jewish men and women cannot touch.
• Koreans avoid touching strangers, particularly between members of the opposite sex but between the same sex as well.
• The avoidance of body contact does not necessarily signify rejection or discrimination. It may be customary or even a sign of respect.

Physical Contact

(See also: Japanese, p. 218.)
When Brin travels to Japan, she meets Kenji, who invites her for a motorbike ride through the countryside. Instead of climbing into the side seat, Brin sits behind Kenji. As soon as she puts her arms around him, he abruptly announces, “Let’s get in the car.”
This exemplifies how uncomfortable Japanese are with public physical contact. It not only applies to male/female contact but to same-sex contact as well. When Dorothy hugged her neighbor, Mrs. Yamashita, at the wedding of Mrs. Yamashita’s son, the groom’s mother stiffened. Even at such a joyous occasion as a wedding, Japanese customs about physical contact are not relaxed.
• Avoid body contact with Japanese people.
• At Japanese special occasions, offer verbal felicitations and nod the head slightly forward.
• Most Asian cultures frown on heterosexual touching. (See also: Signs of Affection, p. 18.)

Sign of the Cross

The California audience sits raptly engaged in the opera. Suddenly an earthquake strikes. The singers drop to their knees, cross themselves, then, with regained composure, stand up and resume singing.
The performers were Roman Catholics from Spain. Making the Sign of the Cross is an automatic gesture for the faithful when experiencing fear or as a sign of respect to their religion.
Roman Catholics make the sign by using two fingers of their right hand joined with the thumb to touch their foreheads, the center of the chest, then the left side over the heart and then the right side of the chest. Members of the Orthodox Church make the Sign of the Cross in reverse direction: After touching the forehead and center of the chest, they move to the right side of the chest, then to the left.
An Eastern Orthodox Church member explains the difference. When Christ was on the cross, he was between two thieves, also on crosses. Because only the thief on the right asked for forgiveness, he was labeled the “good thief.” For that reason, the Eastern Orthodox cross from right to left.
The number of fingers used can be controversial. During the mid-seventeenth century Great Church Schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, Nikon, the new patriarch, undertook reforms including one that required the Sign of the Cross to be made with two fingers instead of three, the customary number up to this time. Those who refused, the Old Believers, were so adamant about maintaining their traditions that they left Russia and emigrated. Some came to the United States and now live in the Alaskan Kenai Peninsula and near Portland, Oregon.
• Regardless of direction of the gesture, the Sign of the Cross reflects a person’s relationship to a higher power. It expresses reverence and/or a need for protection.

Hands off the Head

In a class that helps primary-school children improve their English-language skills, Alma, a new teacher, distributes worksheets with outlines of human figures. She asks the children to identify different body parts by coloring them with assigned colors. They comply until asked to color noses, ears, or any other parts located on the head. Then they refuse to follow her instructions.
The children were Hmong, from the hill country of Laos. The Hmong believe the spirit resides in the head; thus the head is sacred. The children refused to color the heads because by touching them, even in drawings, they might bring harm to the persons the pictures represented. The head must not be touched in reality, either. Previously, Alma and many other teachers had been accustomed to patting youngsters on their heads as a sign of affection. However, after distressed reactions from the children and their parents, the instructors discontinued the patting.
• Many Southeast Asians believe that touching their heads places them in jeopardy because that is where their spirit resides.


(See also: Romantic Implications, p. 145.)
Hoa has just arrived from Vietnam. Her cousin Phuong and some of his American friends are waiting at the airport to greet her. Hoa and Phuong are both excited about this meeting because they have been separated for seven years. As soon as Hoa enters the passenger terminal, Phuong introduces her to his friends Tom, Don, and Charles. Tom steps forward and hugs and kisses Hoa. She pushes him away and bursts into tears.
Among Chinese from Vietnam, if a boy hugs and kisses a girl in public, he insults her. Chinese culture in Vietnam is very strict about this, especially in the rural areas where Hoa grew up. She described her village: “After children are ten years old, boys and girls cannot play together. A boy and girl cannot date without their parents’ approval. A man and woman cannot hug or kiss if they’re not married.” (See also: Signs of Affection, p. 18.)
In Hoa’s village, if anyone violated these rules, the villagers punished the girl by forcing her to kneel on the ground so they could spit at her and throw rocks at her. No wonder Phuong’s American friends frightened Hoa. She did not know what punishment for public hugging and kissing might be meted out to her in this country. She confused Tom, who by American standards was doing the right thing.
Eventually Hoa learned to be comfortable when greeted with hugs and kisses, accepting them as merely perfunctory acts.
Analogous to this situation is another in which Duane, a Chinese American employee, invited his non-Chinese boss, Mr. Keck, to a large family celebration. When Mr. Keck arrived, he shook hands with Duane and, when introduced to Duane’s grandmother, leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. This shocked the older woman, yet Mr. Keck was totally unaware that he had committed a social blunder. What he considered a respectful act, Grandmother considered disrespectful. Instead, Mr. Keck should have nodded to the older woman and offered her a verbal greeting.
• When establishing relations with Asians, avoid body contact. The safest form is to nod and give a verbal salutation. Follow their lead as the relationship changes.
Increased cross-cultural interaction brings about changes in customs; many Asian businesspeople have accommodated to the American handshaking tradition. On the other hand, in a situation where it seems as if bowing would still be the only polite move to make—especially to the Japanese—following these guidelines should make it easier:
• When bowing to people from Japan, the hands should slide down toward the knees or remain at the side.
• The back and neck should be held in a rigid position, while the eyes look downward.
• The person in the inferior position always bows longer and lower.
Those from India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh use the namaste for both greetings and farewells and as a sign of respect. They do this by holding their hands chest-high in a prayerlike position, then slightly nod the head, but they do not bow. American students of yoga who are taught by Asian teachers become familiar with this gesture that heralds the beginning of each session. Thais have a similar greeting, but they call it a wai.
While body contact is generally taboo in most Asian countries, elsewhere body contact is expected; shying away from contact gives off negative signals.
• When greeting, people from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Thailand hold their hands together in front of their chins in a prayerlike position and nod their heads.
• When greeting, most Latinos expect body contact. Hugging and kissing on the cheek are acceptable for both the same sex and the opposite sex. The abrazo is commonplace—friends embrace and simultaneously pat each other on the back.
• When greeting, most people from France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and other Mediterranean countries expect to be kissed on both cheeks.
• When greeting, most Middle Easterners, especially Muslims, avoid body contact with the opposite sex (see also: Giving Change, p. 12), but men may embrace and kiss one another. Women may do the same. When shaking hands, men should avoid pulling their hands away too quickly.
• When greeting most Armenians, expect some body contact. Women kiss once on each cheek and hug; men shake hands. Men may also hug and kiss women on the cheek if they are close friends.
• When greeting Orthodox Jews, avoid body contact with the opposite sex.
• Muslims, especially older ones, make the salaam greeting by using the right hand to touch the heart and move the hand upward to touch the forehead. They may say “Salaam alaykum” (Peace be with you).

Signs of Affection

(See also: Physical Contact, p. 13; Greetings, p. 15.)
Sheree Bykofsky, an American writer, is thrilled when a cruise ship line purchases copies of her new romantic travel guide, The Best Places to Kiss in and around New York City. The cruise line plans to give the books as dinner favors during their special Valentine’s cruise.
They invite Sheree on board to greet the passengers and autograph their copies. The Americans and Europeans delight in meeting the author and having her sign their books. However, when Sheree visits the tables of the Japanese passengers, most of them refuse to acknowledge her.
Japanese people do not approve of public body contact and, thus, have developed a complex system of bowing to express relationships. Touching a member of the opposite sex is particularly repugnant to their sensitivities; consequently, kissing in public is considered a disgraceful act.
The Japanese snubbed Sheree because the title of her book suggested behavior that did not conform to their standards of respect. They would not acknowledge her because in their eyes she promoted vulgarity.
Asians from countries other than Japan are equally disapproving when they see American men and women openly displaying affection in public. In their own countries, women are thought of as “easy” if they act this way. Even husbands and wives avoid body contact in public.
Conversely, in Asian countries, it is perfectly acceptable for two women or two men to walk in public holding hands. However, when they practice this sign of friendship here, they are frequently mistaken for homosexuals. This shocks them.
Same-sex hand-holding or walking arm-in-arm also occurs among Latinos, French, Spanish, Italians, Greeks, and Middle Easterners.
• Most Japanese people strongly disapprove of public expression of affection by males and females through kissing or any other form of body contact.
• Same-sex hand-holding between Asians, Middle Easterners, Latinos, or those from Mediterranean countries is a sign of friendship. Walking with arms on each other’s shoulders or with hands or arms linked also equates with camaraderie.
• This taboo is changing with the younger generations in the United States, who have begun to adopt more open public expressions of affection.


Caroline works in the administrative office of a community college. She informs students about how they have fared on the English as a Second Language Placement Test. She is very friendly and patient with these students who have limited English skills.
One day, Zitilla, a girl from Afghanistan, comes to inquire about the results of her exam. She has done very well, and Caroline wishes to communicate this to her. She gives her the thumbs-up gesture. When Zitilla sees this, she turns red and beads of sweat form on her forehead. She rushes out of the office without saying a word.
In Zitilla’s Afghan culture, the thumbs-up sign has the same sexual connotation as the American middle-finger gesture. Other Middle Eastern countries, as well as Nigeria and Australia, also think of it as obscene. It does not have any meaning for Southeast Asian (Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, Mien, Vietnamese) cultures.
During the 1992 Democratic Convention, presidential nominee Bill Clinton used that sign on national television to indicate his pleasure over being nominated. One can just envision the amazed reaction of global TV watchers whose interpretation of the thumbs-up gesture matched Zitilla’s.
• Gestures do not have universal meaning. For people from many parts of the world, thumbs-up is obscene.
• Pointing with the index finger is considered rude to people from outside the United States, especially people from Asian countries.
• The American “bye-bye” gesture means “come here” to people from Southeast Asia.

Crooked Finger

A Japanese-owned corporation in the United States hires American office workers, including Helen Olson. All the top management executives are Japanese males with very limited English language skills.
On her second day at work, Helen needs to communicate with one of the big bosses about some paperwork on her desk. Because of the language barrier, she uses gestures to indicate that she would like her boss to come over to her desk to look at the problem.
After she catches his eye, she crooks her index finger and moves it in a “come here” motion.
The boss looks horrified.
Totally unaware of Japanese body language, Helen had made an obscene gesture. She felt humiliated when she found out what the boss thought she meant. Of course, Helen had no intention of insulting him, but as a result of this misunderstanding, she became so uncomfortable working in this office that she decided to quit. However, when she gave notice, the boss would not accept it. In Japan, employees usually don’t quit. If Helen left the company, it would cause the boss to lose face. Because of this, Helen remained working there for a short time and then, in spite of her employer’s protests, she quit.
Japan is not the only country where this gesture has negative connotations. In Yugoslavia and Malaysia, it is used to call animals; in Indonesia and Australia, the gesture beckons prostitutes; in Vietnam, this gesture is used to call animals or to beckon an inferior. Frequently, when used between persons of equal status, it becomes an act of hostility. Among other Southeast Asians, it is a threatening gesture to children and an insolent one to adults.
• Don’t use the crooked-index-finger “come here” gesture with Japanese or other Asian people.


People are lined up at the DMV to have their photos taken for their picture identification on new and renewed drivers’ licenses. Russ Conner is the man behind the camera. Most people give him a great big smile when he asks them to do so. However, one day, when he asks a Japanese man to smile, the man refuses.
The Japanese man didn’t smile because the picture was for a government document. To smile would have meant that he did not take his driving responsibility seriously enough. Generally, in their native country, the Japanese do not smile for photo IDs. Equating smiling with frivolous behavior may also be the reason why so few Japanese government officials are photographed with smiles, except when they are coached to do so for photos taken with American dignitaries.
According to Hiroto Murasawa of the Pola Research Institute of Beauty and Culture in Tokyo, who studies faces for a living, it’s not proper to move the face or body too much. Until the twentieth century, some Japanese women shaved their eyebrows and blackened their teeth to veil natural expression. Many Japanese women still hide their mouths behind a hand when they speak or laugh. Concealing emotions has been an ideal for men as well.
While Americans primarily associate smiling with friendliness, a smile can mean something different in another culture. In Japan, people smile when they are sad, happy, apologetic, angry, or confused. In Korean culture, smiling signals shallowness and thoughtlessness. The Korean attitude toward smiling is expressed in the proverb, “The man who smiles a lot is not a real man.” Lack of smiling by Koreans has often been misinterpreted as hostility when Korean shopkeepers interact with non-Korean customers. After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Byung Sik Hong, a Korean American management expert, began coaching Korean immigrants in Los Angeles and Orange counties about the importance of smiling and other ways to convey friendliness to Americans.
For other Asians, smiling can mean disagreement, anger, frustration, confusion, or a substitute for “I’m sorry” or “Thank you.” When Puerto Ricans smile, the message may be “Please,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome,” “Yes, what can I do for you?”, or “Excuse me, please. May I see you for a moment?” For Puerto Ricans, the variation in meaning depends on eye expression and forehead movements.
• Americans smile primarily as an expression of friendliness. People from other places may attach other meanings to it.
A summary of results of 134 Japanese medical students revealed that 69 percent interpreted smiling as a sign of happiness, 10.6 percent as a sign of disgust, 8.9 percent as sadness, 6.2 percent as contempt, and 2.5 percent as fear.
As of August 15, 2003, the government of Canada issued new specifications for passport photos. Canadians must now send in two photos with a neutral expression, meaning a closed-mouth, straight-ahead gaze. No more smiles. The purpose is to make it easier for security personnel to recognize the passport holder.

Eye Contact

Mr. Hayes, the manager of a chain drugstore, prides himself on the way he runs his business. Customers seem happy to shop there, and he believes it is because of the esprit de corps he has created among the employees.
One day while helping Isabela unpack a new shipment of toiletries, he invites her to take a break and sit down and have a cup of coffee with him. Shyly, she accepts. Mr. Hayes chats with her casually but notices that when he speaks to her, Isabela looks down at the floor and seems uninterested. He believes she is being disrespectful and reprimands her for this.
She is surprised at his anger.
In his typically American open style of communication, Mr. Hayes confronted Isabela about not looking at him. Reluctantly, she explained why. As a newcomer from Mexico, she had been taught to avoid eye contact as a mark of respect to authority figures—teachers, employers, parents. Mr. Hayes did not know this. He then informed her that most Americans interpret lack of eye contact as disrespect and deviousness. Ultimately, he convinced Isabela to try and change her habit, which she slowly did.
People from many Asian, Latino, and Caribbean cultures also avoid eye contact as a sign of respect. Many African Americans, especially from the South, observe this custom, too. A master’s thesis by Samuel Avoian, a graduate student at Central Missouri State University, tells how misinterpreting eye contact customs can have a negative impact when white football coaches recruit African American players for their teams.
He reports that when speaking, white communicators usually look away from the listeners, only periodically glancing at them. They do the opposite when listening—they are expected to look at the speaker all the time.
Many African Americans communicate in an opposite way. When speaking, they tend to constantly stare at the listener; when listening, they mostly look away. Therefore, if white sports recruiters are not informed about these significant differences, they can be misled about interest and attentiveness when interviewing prospective African American ballplayers.
• Avoidance of eye contact may be a sign of respect. Cultural differences affect how people use their eyes to speak and listen.
In multicultural America, issues of eye contact have brought about social conflicts of two different kinds: In many urban centers, non-Korean customers became angry when Korean shopkeepers did not look at them directly. The customers translated the lack of eye contact as a sign of disrespect, a habit blamed for contributing to the open confrontation taking place between some Asians and African Americans in New York, Texas, and California. Many teachers, too, have provided stories about classroom conflicts based on their misunderstanding Asian and Latin American children’s lack of eye contact as being disrespectful.
On the other hand, direct eye contact has now taken on a new meaning among the younger generation and across ethnic borders. Particularly in urban centers, when one teenager looks directly at another, this is considered a provocation, sometimes called mad-dogging, and can lead to physical conflict.
Mad-dogging has become the source of many campus conflicts. In one high school, it resulted in a fight between Cambodian newcomers and African American students. The Cambodians had been staring at the other students merely to learn how Americans behave, yet the others misinterpreted the Cambodians’ intentions and the fight began.
Mad-dogging seems to be connected with the avoidance of eye contact as a sign of respect. Thus, in the urban contemporary youth scene, if one looks directly at another, this disrespects, or “disses,” that person. Much like the archaic phrase “I demand satisfaction,” which became the overture to a duel, mad-dogging may become a prelude to a physical encounter.
At the entrances to Universal Studios’ “City Walk” attraction in Los Angeles, they have posted Code of Conduct signs. The second rule warns against “physically or verbally threatening any person, fighting, annoying others through noisy or boisterous activities or by unnecessary staring....”
• Direct eye contact among urban youths can signal an invitation to a fight.

Lining Up

The usual long line confronts Judith Smartt as she steps up to her window at the DMV to begin taking pictures for drivers’ licenses. After snapping several photos, the next person in line, a woman, moves forward, at the same time signaling four other people to join her.
Annoyed, Judith asks, “How many persons are you?” In halting English, the Armenian woman answers, “Five.” Judith calls over a translator, who informs the woman that she cannot hold four extra places. Disappointed, the rest of her family goes to the end of the line and waits one more hour until they each reach their place in front of Judith’s camera.
Lining up in Armenia had different rules. There, what this woman did would have been acceptable. Emigrés from other former Soviet dominated societies react similarly. A social service agency handling Soviet immigrants had difficulty because applicants would not line up in an orderly fashion. The clients were used to pushing and fighting to win the attention of the staff, a tactic that worked well in their former countries. To avoid this contest, the administrator switched to an appointment-only service and avoided lining-up problems.
Americans are particular about rules for standing in line. As children, they learn that no one can cut in, that each person must wait in line, and “first come, first served.” No one has special privileges. Ideas about the correct way to line up exemplify values of democracy and efficiency.
• Many new immigrants don’t understand the American rules for standing in line. For situations that require lines, an appointment-only system can be used to avoid lining-up problems.

One at a Time

Harold needs to buy a new TV and goes to an appliance store that has a very large stock. Ed, the eager salesman, shows Harold the different models and features. In the middle of doing so, he abandons Harold to attend to another customer who has just walked into the department. This offends Harold. In spite of the lure of the good prices, he leaves the store in a huff.