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Committing Cultural Faux Pas

We all do it, even in the field of psychology

Committing a cultural faux pas — doing something that is unintentionally offensive to another person’s culture — is something we all try to avoid. My partner recently recounted the following incident:

I was living in the White Mountains of Arizona. It was late March, and that meant one thing … beautiful spring skiing. The snow conditions were perfect, especially for cross country skiing. On most days, the sun would shine through the thin mountain air, and by mid-afternoon, the top layer of snow covering the rolling meadows would become slightly more compacted. At night, the temperature would dip dramatically, stiffening the surface of the snow into a sturdy crust, and turning the terrain into an expansive cross country skating rink.

On this particular Sunday morning I woke up at the break of dawn, grabbed my skis, poles and boots, and headed out for a day of “crust cruising” among the Ponderosa pine-lined meadows of the Navajo Reservation. Since I had to make an appearance in the White Mountain Apache Tribal Court the next day, I decided to book a cabin near the Sunrise Ski Area and mix business with pleasure.

The weather did not disappoint. The early morning temperature was brisk, but I figured that once I got going, I would be warm enough with a light cross-country ski jacket and pants and a pair of light gloves. As I glided over the perfectly smooth snow, I basked in the warm Arizona sun and enjoyed the cool mountain breeze in my face. I had to unzip my ski jacket as the day wore on, never giving sunscreen a second thought … at least not until I returned to my cabin at the end of the day, changed out of my ski clothes and looked in the mirror. 

My face, ears and neck were burned to a bright, almost crimson, red. Even the insides of my ears and my nostrils we fried to a crisp. Using a trick that I had learned as a young child to gauge the severity of my sunburn, I pushed the tip of my finger into the skin on my forehead and pulled it away quickly. The indentation turned white for a fraction of a second, and then quickly transitioned back to match the incandescent red color of the rest of my face. I scurried to the ski shop to get some aloe vera after-ski skin lotion, but it was too late. The damage had been done.

Despite the severity of my sun burn, I slept fairly well that night. As I got dressed for my court appearance, I tried to flip up the collar of my shirt to tie my necktie. The sensation of the stiff collar on my scorched neck felt like someone was rubbing a cheese grater on my skin. I decided to leave the top button my shirt undone and leave my tie uncinched until the last minute.

I met my clients outside the courthouse in Whiteriver, fully expecting to be on the receiving end of a few light-hearted barbs about my appearance. They were surprisingly sympathetic. I led them into the courtroom and we sat down at the plaintiff’s table. My opposing counsel was not so compassionate. He asked me if I had been bobbing for French fries at the Hon-Dah Casino the night before. 

I was relieved to see the judge enter the courtroom. He sat down behind his bench and, without looking up from his casefile, asked if the parties were ready to proceed. I announced myself as counsel for the plaintiffs and the judge peered across the bench at my sunbaked face. “Are you trying to mock this Court?” he asked, an apparent reference to my red face. I wanted to smile, but it hurt too much, so I merely responded, “No, your honor. I have great respect for the Apache Tribal Court, and a newfound respect for the blistering Arizona sun.” At that point, everyone in the courtroom had a good laugh at my misfortune and the proceedings went forward as planned. I don’t remember whether we won or lost the case, but I’ll never forget how happy I was to finally take off that tie and unbutton my shirt collar.


My partner is not the only one who is guilty of such cultural blunders. Within the field of western psychology, researchers have been committing a form cultural faux pas for many decades. They have “accidentally” committed culturally embarrassing mistakes in the sense that most of the research done in the field of social science has been tailored toward a specific demographic group identified by the acronym W.E.I.R.D (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). 

To make matters worse, they have extrapolated those research results to other cultures without taking cultural differences into account. In academia, the need for change in this practice, and for expanded diversity initiatives, is widely acknowledged.

This paradigm shift is slowly being made in my own field of expertise, “theory of mind” research, where scholars study the development and application of mental state reasoning. The concept of theory of mind is better known in the field of clinical psychology as mentalization. Both refer to our natural ability to peer into the minds of others.

Illustrating the importance of taking cultural aspects into account in research, developmental studies on theory of mind have only recently shown that mental state reasoning, a competence developed through the interplay of nature and nurture, is influenced by culture. Researchers discovered that in China and Iran, preschoolers first develop the understanding that people can have different access to knowledge, and later develop the understanding that people can hold different beliefs. (1) This developmental sequence works the other way around in Western cultures.

When examining what it means to be a person, in Western cultures the “self” is given a tremendous amount of attention. Selfhood is ostentatiously expressed through mental state information translated into words, appearance and actions. In many other cultures, however, personhood is integrated into the social fabric in such a way that mental states are viewed as concealed, private, or even secret aspects of an individual. In such cultures, the attempt to acquire mental state information about another, for instance through empathizing with someone, might even be perceived of as offensive and morally wrong, as it is believed that one should respect another person’s privacy. (2)

I remember a cultural faux pas that I committed when I was working in Kenya. While I was travelling with one of my Kenyan colleagues, I asked her how many children she had. My colleague shared that she had given birth to eight children, but that two of them had died before reaching the age of two. I empathized with her, as I would do with someone in my own Dutch culture, saying, “I am so sorry for your loss. It is already unimaginably difficult having to deal with the death of one child, but having this happen twice must have been terrible.” She looked at me, her eyes wide open, and answered, “What are you talking about mzungu (white person)?!” She continued, partly irritated and partly in jest, “This happens to all of us here, we don’t cry about this. You mzungus cry about everything, like when you are giving birth you scream it out. We Africans don’t need empathy, we can deal with these pains.” Not exactly the response I had anticipated, but it did teach me a lot about her cultural perspective.

Committing cultural faux pas is part and parcel of venturing out of your comfort zone into new, uncharted territory. I have made many embarrassing mistakes, and I have profusely apologized for them. Luckily, it has never damaged my relationship with others. 

I have also been on the receiving end of a cultural faux pas or two. As a well-intentioned cultural-faux-pas recidivist myself, I understand the importance of trying to reason about the mental states that a person might have in light of their cultural back ground before reacting to what I perceive as a cultural or social slight.

Let me share another experience from the time that I was living in Kenya. Shortly after returning from celebrating Christmas in Holland, I ran into one of my Kenyan colleagues at a shop in Mombasa. He asked me “Where have you been sister?” He immediately followed his question with the remark: “You have grown fat!” In all my Dutchness, I wanted to blurt out, “Excuse me?!” Instead, I stopped myself just in time, smiled and cracked a joke.

Meanwhile, through an internal monologue, I mentalized as follows: “My colleague’s demeanor didn’t express that he was joking. He was definitely serious when he made this remark, although somehow, despite my initial reaction, I don’t really feel offended.”

Then I remembered what a Kenyan friend once told me, “In Africa people may assume that when you are skinny you suffer from a serious disease.”

My internal monologue continued: “So I guess my colleague thought he was paying me a compliment. It was just his way of saying that I looked healthy.”

I was relieved that I hadn’t gone all Dutch on him, as it could have irreparably damaged our relationship.

My cross-cultural experiences heightened my awareness of, and proficient in dealing with, cultural faux pas. Additionally, I have learned that other people are generally very forgiving of my cultural missteps, especially when differences in our cultural backgrounds are so conspicuously apparent. In turn, I am very forgiving toward people who make the same unintended social blunders around me. They are little accidents that everybody can laugh about (most of the time), as long as we can all see things from each other’s perspective. Actually, they often make for great stories to share with others, as illustrated by the story of my partner’s red-faced appearance in the White Mountain Apache Tribal Court.





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