Cross Cultural Faux Pas Stories

This week on The Public Speaker, I talk about cross-cultural communication. I explain a model of communication that was developed by an anthropologist named Edward Hall. He talked about the idea of high- and low-context communication cultures. Hall said that in high-context communication, in general, many things are left unsaid. And cultures that favor low-context communication will pay more attention to the literal meanings of words than to the context surrounding them.

While I was writing the episode I thought it would be fun to reach out to my extended network and ask for cross-cultural faux pas stories. I am so glad I asked.

I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed collecting them.

Here they are:


As a Chinese-American, I like to think of myself as sensitive and aware of Asian American issues. While I have had run-ins with “Anglo-Americans” based of THEIR cultural misunderstandings, this incident reminds me not to be complacent, especially when assuming when one erroneously thinks she knows and understands her own culture.

I serve on the organizing committee for the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, an event we created nine years ago. With Dragon Boat racing as the central event and lots of cultural, culinary and marketplace features, we have grown from attracting 15,000 people and 16 race teams the first year, to over 100,000 attendees and 55 race teams this year. The organizing committee is made up of members of different Asian ethnic groups, and our mission:

“The mission of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival is to build bridges of awareness, knowledge and understanding between the diverse Asian Pacific American (APA) communities and the general public through cultural education, leadership development, and athletic competition.”
Discussing what new entertainment to provide, I suggested that we rent Sumo Wrestling suits, and allow participants the opportunity to try them on for a hilarious bout of Japanese style wrestling. A fellow committee member, a Japanese American quickly expressed her revulsion to the idea, stating it was offensive to hear the “wrestlers” making noises in guttural “mock Japanese.” As one who has been the recipient of “mock Chinese” taunting, I was stunned that it never even occurred to me that this was the same form of insult.

I was chagrined to realize my own insensitivity and wrong assumptions that “of course” I would never participate in that type of slur. The opportunity to work with, be exposed to, and learn more about many diverse Asian communities and cultures is a benefit I value personally–not just as our mission for others.

Increased familiarity breeds understanding.

Mary Lee Chin, Colorado Dragon Boat Festival <>


Maybe 15 years ago on an MBA exchange in the Netherlands, we were competing as teams of students to present a project we’d done as teams for Dutch companies. With me presenting we had won the student -judged semi-finals. Now were up for the local-business-leader-judged finals.

It was either me or a Dutch student who would present; we chose me. Then I mingled/schmoozed with the business people before our presentation in a very “American” way, clearly trying to butter them up.

We didn’t win!

We should have had the local student present… and kept a low-profile, refraining from the obvious schmoozing.

Barak Kassar, Founder/Creative Director
Rassak Experience


When I was 11, I participated in a foreign exchange program with another elementary school in France. Six months prior to our departure, we would correspond with our exchange family via letters (email didn’t yet exist at the time) and packages. The translations were rough, but 11 year olds don’t necessarily have the most in-depth conversations anyway. We discussed our favorite foods, animals, pastimes, books etc. In one such letter I mentioned that I had a fondness for stuffed animals.

A few weeks later I received a horrifying package from the family abroad- in the tiny yellow Par Avon box was a taxidermy duckling and a note saying something to the effect of, “Well, it’s certainly a strange hobby you have, but here is a duckling from my uncle’s farm to add to your collection.” Apparently “stuffed animals” was a literal translation.

One bewildered letter later, I was sent another box and was happy to find that this time they had sent me a soft, stuffed toy duckling.

To this day we keep in contact and laugh about the misunderstanding.

Allison Brinkman
Public Relations Manager
Eisen Management Group


Here are two: a very simple one and a more complex scenario.

First the simple:

An American executive in London complained that he had taken his wife to a traditional English pub and an English couple had the nerve to sit at their table. “First, they sat at our table without asking, then they ignored us,” he told the office the next day. (In a crowded pub, tables are held in common but each party respect the privacy of the others.)

Some are potential deal-breakers :

One client, a large US corporation, called us in to help resolve an impasse within a joint venture with a large Japanese corporation. The US team leader described his Japanese counterpart as weak, incompetent and completely disinterested in the project. “He never says anything in meetings, he just sits there. Sometimes I think he is asleep. I do my best to drive the project, but nothing happens. His people can’t seem to understand anything my team sends them – they’re always questioning our data, nit picking everything. We’re way behind schedule!”

The Japanese team had a different view. They revered their manager: he demanded perfection, thoroughly understood their business, taught them, supported them, and fostered their careers. They described the American executive delicately: “headquarters gave him a weak team; he must always present things himself. He can’t rely on his team for any support. We don’t believe anything his people send us, how could we?”
Both sides were interpreting the other’s behavior strictly in terms of their own corporate and national cultural assumptions. Where the Japanese executive was demonstrating confidence and support for his team the Americans saw passivity and disinterest. In trying to correct that perceived problem the American executive unintentionally convinced the Japanese that the American team members were not up to the task at hand – anything that did not come from the American executive himself could not be trusted. We were able work with both sides to resolve the misunderstandings and the project was ultimately successful.

Jeffrey Walsh, Executive Vice President
KLC Associates


A high-ranking US government official inadvertently set back negotiations with the Russians on cooperative projects in safeguarding nuclear material because of a cross-cultural faux pas. Not knowing that to Russians at a negotiation, “no” is often an opening response but not a final position, the official dropped a key US proposal when she heard the Russians reject it.

Several months later, a Russian who had been present at the talks told a visiting American that the Russian side had been very surprised that the American official had stopped talking about the US proposal. He said the Russians had simply been sounding out the US side on its proposal and trying to find out how strongly the Americans would defend it. When they hadn’t defended it at all, the Russians were baffled. This cultural misunderstanding set the talks back a good four months.

Carolyn Smith, Cross-cultural trainer and consultant


When I was in college I had the opportunity to teach English in Czechoslovakia.

After two long days of travel, we finally arrived in the southern part of the country, Slovakia, where we met our hosts. Once we were matched with our hosts they immediately escorted me and my roommate to the car. We had another two hour journey before we would make it to what would be our new home for the next few months. Everything happened so fast we didn’t have a chance to visit the restroom prior to our departure.

About 30 minutes into the drive I really had to go. I politely asked our hosts, “Excuse me, I need to go to the bathroom. Can you stop at the next possible location?” Keep in mind; we spoke “proper” Southern American English, not the “proper” British English that they had been studying for quite some time. They had heard that we Americans do like to be clean.

After another 30 minutes past, I began to feel a piercing pain in my side. I asked again, “Please, I really have to go to the bathroom. Can we stop for a break?” Finally they politely looked back and offered to stop for a rest and a coke. This was such a nice gesture- but please. In these days a Coke was extremely expensive and a luxury, yet they were graciously trying to accommodate their new guests.

With my eyes watering and my legs crossed I pleaded, “Can you please ask them if I can use their bathroom? I will pay them American money.” They looked at me very concerned and said, “You do not want to use their bathroom” as to indicate that it was not very clean or unsuitable in their eyes for their new American friend.

I looked at my roommate with my legs crossed in pain and sighed, “I don’t want to die in a foreign country because I can’t find a toilet. This is not how I want to go.”

Finally, the light bulb went off and suddenly my hosts replied with glee, “Toilet?” “Yes, toilet” I confirmed.

With a few chuckles, my hosts promptly took me to the facility. I returned to the car only to discover that they thought I had been asking to take a bath for the past hour and a half. In their country they refer to the toilet as the WC or Water Closet. This was my first few hours in the country and we laughed about this throughout our tenure!

Dallas Teague Snider, CMP / Founder, Speaker and Trainer
Make Your Best Impression


If you interested in learning a bit more about cross-cultural communication, you might want to check out the following resources:

Communicating Across Culture


Kiss, Box, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries

There are 2 comments .

Maxi Malone

So enjoyed article on Colorado Dragon Boat Festival.

May Your Glass Always Be Half Full

Reply »
greta goss


As one who has lived in other countries, and is interested in all things cross cultural, I found this an inviting read. Plus, it’s a phenomenon that occurs so regularly in the ill-conceived new homes architects and developers now design that I wrote an essay about it titled: This Room Is Called The What???

Greta Goss

Reply »

Share Your Thoughts!

Name: Email:  
Copyright Lisa B. Marshall ©2012-2016. All Rights Reserved. Photo of Lisa B. Marshall by Joan Ford Photography.