Being culturally aware is important for anyone traveling abroad or conducting international business. It’s important to recognize that not everyone around the world sees things the way we do and understanding others’ perspectives and customs will allow us to better relate and avoid inadvertently offending someone.
Noted cultural trainer Dean Foster recently wrote a piece about doing business in Brazil where he discusses “why the okay sign is not okay in Brazil” (if signifies an orifice). It’s an excellent example of a gesture that is perfectly acceptable in the US but considered very obscene or offensive in Brazil.
The security dimension of cultural awareness is that failing to be culturally aware can put you in a potentially dangerous situation if your behavior is offensive to others. No where is this more true than in male – female interaction. Activity that might be perfectly acceptable in western countries may invite confrontation and even violence. For example a man “checking out” or flirting with a woman in some of the more conservative Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia may provoke a violent response from the woman’s male family members or even other male members of the society who observe it. Likewise a woman traveling alone and wearing suitably fashionable clothes may be perceived of as promiscuous and may attract attention and unwanted sexual advances.
Public identification of your nationality may also attract unwanted attention as well. It’s not only Americans who carry a stigma in certain countries. At one time being Canadian was considered to be relatively harmless but with the active role Canada had taken in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) this is no longer true. Likewise Scandinavians were once a “safe” nationality to be but after the controversial cartoons depicting Mohamed this has changed and Scandinavians are mire susceptible to being targeted. French nationals have been targeted in Cote D’Ivoire and some other African countries. For these reasons it’s important to adopt the persona of the “Gray Man” as we have discussed previously.
It’s important to understand that cultural awareness is important and the implications can be greater than just hurting somebody’s feelings or losing some business deal. Failure to understand the local culture in the most extreme cases can get you beaten, stabbed or arrested.