Culturally speaking……

Many people suggest that Sir Winston Churchill said ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language’. Most sources agree that it was actually George Bernard Shaw who said it first, although Churchill probably either repeated it, or said something similar. Whatever, bringing Sir Winston into the story helps me later in this blog, so stick with me!

The fact that ‘English English’ and ‘US English’ share many common words and phrases that have subtle (and not so subtle) differences in meaning and spelling, should give anyone in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries pause for reflection. If you’re reacting to a guest from somewhere else, then be mighty careful what you say, how you say it, and how it’s interpreted.

There are the obvious differences most of us in these industries know about – elevator/lift, sidewalk/pavement etc., but what about the more subtle variations? To a Brit the floor of a building at street level is referred to as the Ground Floor, to an American – First Floor. Consequently the American’s first floor is the Briton’s second floor and so on. When the Englishman requests a room on the first floor, don’t tell him he can sleep in reception!

Taking a laundry order? To an American they’re pants, but to a Briton they’re trousers. The Britain’s pants are the American’s (under) shorts. Vest? Another mix up. Braces/suspenders – a whole new can of worms.

Even within the USA there’s a cultural and regional mixup between soda/pop, median/neutral ground (the Englishman’s Central Reservation!) and many others.

…and those are just cultural differences between folks who suposedly speak the same language. Differences of which the hospitality or tourism professional needs to be aware. Just imagine what could happen with people who speak totally different languages, or who were taught your common language by a a foreigner, if you get my drift.

Then there are the non-verbal communication issues and the cultural nuances of behavior….

Be careful how you accept a business card given by someone from Japan. Their cultural expectation is that you will receive the card respectfully, study it closely for a few seconds and the either place it in a business card holder or in your wallet. Taking the card and sticking in your pocket, or worse putting on the table without reading it is grossly unacceptable and plain rude.

Personal space? Westerners expects two or three feet around them, but many Asians and Africans are much closer. Many Europeans will kiss on greeting – but be careful as there is a strict code of how many kisses on the cheek you’re entitled to.

Never expose the soles of your feet to a Thai, it’s incredibly disrespectful.

Never sip vodka with a Russian. Vodka should, in Russian culture be ‘downed in one’.

It’s incredibly important that our hospitality and tourism folks are made aware of these cultural nuances if they are ever to encounter a guest from a different country or culture, or indeed if we are going to be tourists elsewhere ourselves.

Even making a assumptions is fraught with danger. Just because someone speaks French doesn’t mean they’re French. A Belgian is not going to be amused to be taken for a Frenchman, any more than Canadians and Americans like being lumped together. Call a Scotsman English (or vice versa) and you’re in for big trouble. Same with Aussies and Kiwis. Oh, and never belittle an Australian sports team – ever!

This whole cultural thing extends to gestures, those little things we do with our hands – thumbs up, OK sign, hang loose and such. Well, although these maybe fine in your culture, they are often incredibly insulting or rude to others. Even the simple ‘come here’ gesture means something REALLY bad in many countries.

It can be in a interesting an often amusing subject, but it stresses that if you’re training hospitality or tourism people they must take cultural differences very seriously. Even if you’re not planning on having a large number of out of area visitors, it takes just one one offended tourists to tell their contacts that ‘we’ behave badly. Even the action of making fun of someone’s accent, or the way they phrase things, indicates an immature grasp of cultural differences.

Now, back to Churchill…..

You’ve seen photos of him doing his V-for Victory two fingered salute, but how many of you (non Britons) have really seen how he did it? First and second finger held up, thumb and remaining fingers curled into the palm and the palm facing the audience.That’s important.

Many non-Britons will indicate ‘I want two of those’ by holding up the same two fingers but with the back of the hand facing towards the audience. A big no-no!

The (probably urban myth) story goes that during the 100 year’s war in the fifteenth century, when the English and the French were constantly at each ether’s throats, there emerged an instrument of mass destruction – the English Long Bowman. So successful were the English Bowmen that at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) the English lost only 400 men compared with 6000 French, despite being outnumbered more than 3 to 1. The French threatened that if they caught an English bowman, they would cut-off the two fingers that they used to draw their bow string. Consequently, it is said, the English bowmen raised a two finger salute in a V sign (not the Churchill version!) to the French showing they still had their fingers.

To this day the British use the V sign in much the same insulting way that Americans use the ‘bird’ single finger! You have been warned…..

If you have any cultural ‘faux pas’ we should be aware of – pass them on.

Sir Winston's V sign
Sir Winston’s V sign
The other V sign!
The other V sign!