Trying to Look Like a Local

By now everyone’s seen the video of GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann chastising President Obama on TV. She said the president  had a lot “choots-spa” when he spent a trillion dollars on the stimulus package. Nice try, Michele, but if you’re going to use a foreign word in an attempt to pretend you know the lingo, better make sure you know how to pronounce it. The Word Mavens say don’t try to act like a local when you’re really a shoobie.

This incident got us thinking about all the ways you can mess up by trying to fit in when you really don’t know the local culture and customs. You can get in trouble even when you keep your mouth shut.

When Joyce was eating at a sushi bar in Tokyo, she passed Ted a piece of salmon with her chopsticks. He grabbed it with his. Then they noticed that the locals were staring. Turns out they had made a major social faux pas –without even saying anything. In Japan, after cremation, close relatives use chopsticks to pick the bones out of the ashes and transfer them to an urn.  Chopsticks are never be used to pass food. Oops.

When Vice President Nixon visited Brazil in the 1950s, he got off the plane and gave an A-okay sign (the circle formed by his thumb and forefinger) to the waiting crowd. But it wasn’t okay. In South America, that hand sign is an obscene gesture indicating a private body part.  His staff may have made hotel reservations and booked the limo but no one vetted the local way to flip the bird…

It’s not a foreign land, but our teens can be a foreign culture. Many times we tried to act like we knew what was going on with them. Okay, so we haven’t said, “I’ll send you a message on the Facebook, (Facebook just is, it has no modifier) but we have asked if it was a “boy/girl party.” Cue the eye roll. And though we know that LOL means “laugh out loud,” we thought WYRN was a radio station, not computer shorthand for “what’s your real name?”

Dads, of course, can embarrass their kids, too. When one of our husbands said to the salesgirl in the Gap, “I’d like a pair of blue jeans, please” it sent a teenage daughter running for the exit. That was an “epic fail, dude.” As we understand it, that’s the current teen term to describe a flub like that.

Around the world customs vary, and it’s easy to get into trouble. We did a quick look on the Internet and found a great site ( that had detailed information of the cultural minefields that await us.

 In Egypt, salting your food is considered an insult. That’s no good for us. We grew up eating lox and kosher pickles. We have kosher salt, sea salt, a salt grinder and more in our homes. We’ve asked them to pass the salt in the finest restaurants.

In Azerbaijan, it is customary to refuse a gift at least twice before reluctantly accepting it. We’ve argued over the check, but we’ve never turned down a wrapped present.

You might guess that the Bahamas have a relaxed island culture where things move slowly. That’s what they tell you when you’re waiting for your sandwich in the restaurant. “Relax, mon, you’re on vacation.” But we learned that if you’re invited to dinner in a Bahamian home, you shouldn’t arrive more than 15 minutes late. Jewish time apparently is not island time.

In Thailand, there are guidelines for gift wrap: Don’t use green, black or blue, since these are used at funerals and when people are in mourning. Gold and yellow are just fine; they’re considered royal colors. Only use red when the recipient is a Chinese Thai. We’re confused, so we’ll just stick with the silver and blue dreidel paper that we end up using year-round.

China has a lot of food rules. We found out that it’s considered rude to eat the last piece of food from a serving tray. So what do they do at a Bar Mitzvah when the caterer says, “Who wants the last pig in the blanket?”

Also, it’s considered an insult if you eat everything on your plate. A clean plate means you didn’t get enough to eat and you’re still hungry. Huh? Our parents used to tell us, “Clean your plate. There are starving kids in China.” We’re still confused.

You don’t have to stray too far from home to find a cultural faux pas. An audience member told us this story: She was in a fancy dress store in Wayne and overheard the salesgirl say, “Oy gevult. I can’t reach that dress for you.”

“What was that word you just used?” the customer asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve heard people say it. I think it’s French,” the salesgirl replied.

Mon dieu. We’ll stick to Yiddish.

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3 Responses to Trying to Look Like a Local

  1. Casey Hirsch says:

    Ellen and Joyce, I just read this while at work in too quiet Writing Center and I actually couldn’t LOL, so I gulped air. Made me remember when chai (the drink) first appeared at Starbucks and I asked for it using the Hebrew pronunciation. Of course, they gaped at me (their nice Jewish barista wasn’t born yet, so couldn’t help me out) and said it’s chai, as in, pronounce the “ch.” I argued with them until they won.


  2. Joan says:

    Love it! So easy to make a cultural mistake!

    Example: don’t tell a Moroccan that you love her shoes, necklace, couscous cooker, etc! Then she will give it to you on the spot and be very insulted if you try to resist.


  3. Lisa Marks says:

    I guess the best way to think is that most people mean well……
    might solve many misunderstandings!


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