“OMG, that’s like SO rude!” – Understanding the Differences Between Cultures

I think people often assume things that are rude are very obvious. That no matter how you grew up you should know these basic rules of society. You’re supposed to implicitly understand what is acceptable and what is not. It’s nice to smile, it’s bad to steal, it’s inappropriate to wear a bathing suit to the office, it’s appropriate to shake hands at the beginning of a meeting, it’s polite to say “thank you”, and it’s rude to ignore someone who is talking to you. Everyone knows all these things and believes them to be true right? WRONG!

Tempo 4

Umm, excuse me sir, you’re sitting on my lap…

People who have never left their own region might assume that these beliefs are part of our human character, and the only people who don’t follow these rules are rebels, criminals, and people they don’t want to be friends with. But in fact, these “rules of society” change greatly between countries or even regions. I hate to make stereotypes, but I’ve created a list of things that are rude in Canada but acceptable in Bangladesh, and visa versa. This is not true for all people in every region of either country, however, I feel that the generalizations will help people to begin challenging their own assumptions.

So here’s a list of things I observed while in Bangladesh:

Things That are Considered Rude in Canada
Canadians think that… Bengalis think that…
–  It’s rude to publicly show bodily functions (such as burping, spitting, farting, etc.) –  It’s completely acceptable to burp and make other noises in public, especially at meals.
–  It’s important to acknowledge others for assisting you by saying “Thank you” and other appreciative words.  “No problem” or “you’re welcome” is the common response. –  It’s ridiculous to say something appreciative to someone who has given you a service (such as a store clerk), since you have paid for what they offered.  There is also no word for “you’re welcome”.
–  Holding up your plate to your face as you eat, or sipping from the plate is not polite. –   The plate should be held close to your face (by your left hand) while eating, in order to minimize spills.
–   Personal space is a right, and people who invade that space need to be close relations or it’s considered inappropriate.  Accidental intrusions warrant an apology. –   Personal space is a luxury, and there is no need to apologize if you bump into someone on the street, knock into their chair in the office,  hit their elbow, or otherwise enter their space. Personal space is definitely seen as a luxury on public transit, and people may basically sit on your lap.
–   Conversations should be ended with “goodbye”, which is usually accompanied by some reason you plan to leave such as “I have to run to a meeting”, “My bus is coming soon”, or “It’s late”… –   There is no reason to say things that are not necessary.  If a conversation is over you simply hang up the phone, go back to work, or leave the room.  There is no indication of an ending.
–   You should offer others food, but try to help them stay healthy by not over-eating. –   Forcing others to eat (even when they’re full) is encouraged, despite high rates of diabetes.
–  You should answer your cell phone when you have free time, otherwise it will go to voice mail, or they can text. –  You should answer your phone at all times, even during lunch or while in a meeting.
–  You shouldn’t stare at others or talk about them (instead of talking directly to them), and if they notice you staring you should look away. –  It’s totally fine to stare at others, and when they notice you should just keep staring.  It’s acceptable to talk about someone right in front of them, without including them in the conversation.
–  You shouldn’t ask someone what their religion is, unless it comes up naturally in conversation. –  Finding out a person’s religion is usually one of the first three questions that you ask when meeting someone.
–  Noise by-laws are important.  If people are being loud you can politely ask them to turn it down, and if they don’t, you can ask the police to come stop them. –  It’s perfectly acceptable to blast whatever sound you want on any street at any time.  This includes 6 hours a day of yelling by religious groups, including after midnight.
–  You should acknowledge other people, especially if you know them, when you walk down the street, into a building, etc.  If you ignore them, it’s probably assumed that you’re mad. –  It’s acceptable to just ignore someone that you know as you walk down the street or come into an office. You might even say hello two hours later if you feel like talking then.
–  It’s rude to ask people how much they’re paid or how much they paid for a certain thing. –  It’s perfectly acceptable to ask someone how much they make or how much they paid for a certain item.  If they ignore or avoid your question, you should just keep asking until you find out the information.
–  If you walk over to someone’s desk or cubicle, it’s for the reason of talking to them about something. –  You can walk up to someone for a conversation, but also because you just feel like leaning on their cubicle.

Now, I’m not trying to be sarcastic or make generalizations about the culture.  These are really things which are quite common in Bangladesh but very rare in Canada.  The other day a friend even asked me “Oh, are people very polite there?”, and I had to think about it for a minute.  My only answer was that everyone is very nice, but that their version of politeness is much different from ours.  There’s often very good cultural or historical reasons that people act the way they do, and I think it’s an interesting way to learn more about a culture.

Things That are Considered Rude in Bangladesh

Canadians think that…. Bengalis think that…
–   It’s nice to smile at others when you’re walking down the street, it shows that you are friendly. –   You shouldn’t smile at other unless they’re your friends (especially women), and never at strangers on the street.
–   You should be able to wear whatever clothes you choose.  However, there is a lot more restrictions in the workplace. –   Women must be fully covered, and wear a scarf to hide the shape of their curves.  Men can wear whatever they please.
–   When someone does you a favour you should thank them profusely for all of their help, and apologize for taking up their time, especially if it’s a big favour. –   Thanking or apologizing too much is rude.  People will help you because they want to, and you shouldn’t act like they’re doing you a big favour (even if they are).
–   You should eat with cutlery (forks and knives). –   You should eat with your right hand.
–  You should stop eating when you’re full (or when you decide you don’t want anymore). –  You must eat every dish, and eat as much as you are served, and if you don’t eat enough, somebody will serve you more even if you refuse, and insist you eat it or they’ll be offended.
–  You will respond to calls when you have time. –  If someone doesn’t pick up your call, it’s normal to call back repeatedly, and be mad if they don’t pick up.
–  You have your own choice of footwear, and not wearing professional shoes in the office is seen as inappropriate. –  You must take off your shoes to enter an office or house.  Therefore, most meetings and meals take place bare-foot.
–  Small talk consists of topics like the weather, local sports teams, or weekend plans. –  Small talk consists of asking the person if they’ve eaten and many repeated questions about the well-being of the persons family.
–  You should make sure to wash your hands after using the bathroom, or if they’re dirty. –  It’s essential to wash your hands before and after every meal.  Muslims also wash their hands and feet before praying.

I know that you’re thinking “Hm, this list is a lot shorter than the other list”, and that’s completely true!  I think the reason for this is I have no idea what other people are thinking in their head.  This means it’s 100% possible that people think I’m being rude all the time but I am never aware of it.  I think a lot of the things that are seen as rude are only learned over time.  Foreigners are also given more leeway, so if they do something rude or out-of-the-ordinary it’s excused because they don’t know better.

So tell me, what do they consider rude (or polite) in places where you have traveled? I would love to hear about your experiences!


About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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