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Servicemen Learn Cultural Pitfalls : When a Thumbs Up Won’t Do

Associated Press

The best advice to Americans abroad is to keep your hands in your pockets, lest you be gravely misunderstood.

For instance, a thumbs up might mean “OK” or “right on” to you, but it’s an obscene gesture in the Middle East.

And the “A-OK” sign of the forefinger and thumb in a circle can get you into all kinds of trouble. It means money in Japan, but in France it means you think someone is a “zero” and in Malta it’s an invitation to a homosexual act.

That’s why Capt. Mike Rafferty has his hands full teaching a cross-cultural communications course at this Air Force base in the Florida Panhandle. He is trying to avoid misunderstandings when American servicemen teach foreign military personnel the intricacies of U.S. military equipment and procedures.

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Just when you want to deliver a compliment to a foreign student, you might be picking a fight.

More Specific Courses

The five-day course is taught at the Air Force Special Operations School. The school also offers more-specific courses for personnel being sent to particular parts of the world such as Latin America or Africa, but Rafferty’s class gives troops an insight into cultural differences around the world.

For instance, patting children on the head may be a sign of endearment to an American, but in some Asian cultures, where the top of the head is considered the home of the soul, it’s an insult.

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“In most other cultures the development has been different,” Rafferty said, noting that many have changed little over thousands of years. “In the United States, the emphasis is on individual rights. In other cultures it’s the survival of the group that’s important.”

This difference shows up in the classroom. Individualistic Americans are taught to ask questions, figure things out for themselves and that their instructors don’t know everything, said Rafferty, whose home is in Stockton, Calif.

Some Don’t Ask Questions

In many non-Western countries, students learn by rote and don’t ask questions or acknowledge that they failed to understand something because they don’t want to be considered different from the rest of the group.

“We have a saying in this country that ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease,’ ” Rafferty said. “In Asia, the saying is ‘the nail that stands up gets hammered down.’ ”

The individual competitiveness of Americans is one of the first things foreign students notice, Rafferty said. They often see it as a negative factor that takes away from the importance of the group.

Other countries tend to stress group competition, perhaps refined to an ultimate by the Japanese, Rafferty said.

The group emphasis also makes the family more significant in many countries. In the Middle East, for example, elders are respected, revered and sought out for advice.

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Other Differences

Time and space are other important differences.

In Arab, African and Latin American countries, arriving 30 minutes or more after a meeting is scheduled to start may be considered “on time,” whereas in the United States it would be insulting to show up so late, Rafferty said. On the other hand, a Swiss-German would get there early.

Although Americans feel uncomfortable when others invade their space, many foreigners, particularly Arabs and Latin Americans, like to get up close and personal.

When that happens to an American at a social function with foreigners, he is likely to back away, but the foreigner again will close the gap, Rafferty said.

“There’s a little dance that goes on,” he said.

Same-sex touching also is common in the Middle East and Asia, where it has none of the sexual connotation it has in America.

Rafferty recalled that while attending the Squadron Officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., he was a good friend of an officer from Thailand. They played on the same soccer team.

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While dressed in their soccer shorts, they were sitting in the stands and talking when the visitor reached over and put his hand on Rafferty’s bare thigh.

“That was real uncomfortable for me,” Rafferty said. “Everybody in the stands behind me was laughing, but it wasn’t a problem.”

Some Favor Eye Contact

Americans also don’t like too much direct eye contact, particularly between men and women. Latinos and Arabs, who share some cultural similarities because of the 700-year Moorish occupation of Spain, like eye contact.

“They feel they can tell a lot about an individual if they can look into his eyes,” Rafferty said.

Some foreigners get into trouble in the United States when strangers interpret their stares as a challenge, he said.

Foreigners and Americans often have stereotyped views of each other that are untrue.

The most commonly held view of the United States is that it is a great melting pot. As a result, some foreign visitors are surprised when they discover exceptions to racial, ethnic and sexual equality.


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