Watch what you do in a foreign country

If you’re in Sudan, don’t you dare name a teddy bear Muhammad. If you’re in Saudi Arabia, don’t you dareShetty
hold hands in public with the opposite sex. And if you’re in India, don’t you dare kiss Shilpa Shetty. Those are just some of the examples Mark McCrum cites in his fascinating article about cultural differences in the Telegraph.

Some high-profile gaffes highlight intercultural
messes that any of us could get into. In June, Cameron Diaz pitched up
at Peru’s Machu Picchu ruins carrying a bag with the Maoist slogan
"Serve the People".

In a country that had been
terrorised by the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas, this caused major
upset. Diaz was forced to issue a statement apologising "to anyone I
may have inadvertently offended". She had picked up the bag in China
and didn’t even know what the slogan meant, let alone its significance. [Link]

"Serve the People" — isn’t that SouthWest Airlines‘ slogan? No, wait, it’s "Serve the peanuts."

Even
the most powerful corporations have fallen into similar heffalump
traps. When Pepsico launched in China with the cheery slogan "Come
alive with Pepsi", it little realised it would come out in Chinese as
"Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead". [Link]

Coke tried to promote itself as "the real thing," but in Chinese, it came out as "your thing is real."

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. [Link]

Ah, that explains why the Vice President is known in Argentina as Pinto Cheney.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll never be able to eat pinto beans again.

Similarly, the Dublin-based makers of the after-dinner liqueur
Irish Mist were probably foolish not to have realised that "mist" in
German means "manure". [Link]

Irish Mist sold fairly well in Germany, but many people complained that, instead of getting bigger, their tomato plants kept falling over.

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 forefinger
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 same sign can imply that a
man is a cuckold. In Norway, it’s the sign of the devil, more often
used by fans of dodgy heavy metal groups than world leaders. [Link]

Tourist: "You Norwegians consider that the sign of the devil, don’t you?"

Norwegians: "Not anymore. These days, it’s even worse than that."

Tourist: "Worse than that?"

Norwegian: "Yeah, it’s the sign of Bush."

Americans travelling the world should watch out for their "OK" sign,
where forefinger meets the thumb in a tight circle.


In Portugal or Greece it means "no good", while in places as far apart
as Turkey, Malta and Brazil the gesture suggests you are comparing
someone to a part of their anatomy. And if you’re travelling in Iran,
take care with the cheery "thumbs up". Known as the bilakh, it means:
"Sit on this!" [Link]

Wait a minute … didn’t Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during his recent visit to America, give a lot of people the "thumbs up" sign?

Most of
us know that the Japanese bow to each other, but did you know how
seriously they take the ritual of handing over business cards? The card
should be studied for several seconds before being put carefully in a
wallet or card-holder. Just smiling and stuffing it in your back pocket
is a mark of disrespect; dropping it or tossing it to one side is an
outright insult. [Link]

Katsuto: "The American respects me. He studied my business card for eight seconds."

Mikito: "Oh yeah? He studied mine for nine seconds. I timed him."

Katsuto: "That’s nothing. He put my business card carefully in his wallet."

Mikito: "Oh yeah? He put my card on a pedestal and then he bowed in front of it."

Even generosity can be
misinterpreted. A bunch of chrysanthemums might seem like a fine thing
to take along to a dinner party – but not in much of mainland Europe,
where they’re for funerals only. Gifts provide fertile terrain for
disaster.

A leather wallet in India, a clock in
China, silver in Mexico – all are mistakes apparently. In Japan, it’s
the opening of a gift in front of the giver that is the most serious
mistake, as a show of disappointment would be an unbearable loss of
face. [Link]

Giving a leather wallet is a mistake in India? I didn’t know that. I gave a leather wallet to one of my uncles. I don’t think he was upset. After all, he smiled and gave me the "thumbs up" sign.

If you enjoyed this piece, you'll love Melvin's novel Bala Takes the Plunge, available in North America through Amazon.com and McNallyRobinson.com You can also find it at major bookstores in India and Sri Lanka or online at FlipKart, IndiaPlaza, FriendsofBooks or other sites. A number of readers have written reviews of the novel. An excerpt of the novel can be read here.

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