When I’m asked what it is like to live in Mumbai I usually say that it is a total assault on my senses. What I mean by that statement is that there are many things to see, do, smell, eat, and hear that are very different to what I have become accustomed to living in the UK and the US. This week the cultural differences of communication became a talking point on my Facebook feed and got me thinking about the subtleties in the way we connect through dialogue or gesture.


    What to do when you are not being understood


    There is a British stereotype of the Brit abroad (and probably for very good reason) that to be understood by a ‘foreigner’ you simply need to say the same sentence only a little slower, a lot louder, and perhaps add some hand movements for emphasis. This always makes me think of Basil Faulty from the British television sitcom Faulty Towers. This show would be very un pc now but it still makes me giggle when I watch John Cleese berate Manuel, the hapless waiter.



    Living in Mumbai, where there are many languages spoken, I sadly can only converse in English. Moving into an apartment this week meant that I had a number of service people in and out of the apartment setting up my internet, installing cable tv, servicing air conditioning, fixing light switches, oh the list goes on and on. The one thing that stood out for me was that when communication broke down the Hindi speaker would just repeat the same sentence (in English) over and over again. For example, ‘the Internet signal is working’. Just a little frustrating when in fact the Internet signal was not allowing my laptop or phone to connect to it so while it was ‘working’ it was useless.


    Lets start at the top – the head


    In India, the ‘head wobble’ is a communication trait that can be extremely confusing to foreigners. What I might take for a no, a horizontal head movement, is actually a yes. A wobble or a constant headshake is actually a sign of encouragement, similar to a nod that I might do. I shared a funny video when I talked about Indian customs, that demonstrates my point so well, please take a look.


    Be aware that the head is very important in other cultures. A gentle pat on the head is seen in many cultures as a gesture of fondness but you will offend a Buddhist if you attempt to do this action. In the Buddhist faith the top of the head, as the highest point of the body, is where the spirit exists and so should not be touched.


    Do you talk with your hands?


    I know I do. I would say I am fairly expressive with my hand movements but I had no idea that my use of hands would say so much about my inner self! I discovered an article in The Times of India about this very subject. Did you know that if you hold your little finger apart from the others you have trust issues? I’m not sure I buy into all that this article imparts, but it was interesting reading, what do you think?

    Cultural communication differences
    Photo Attribution

    Be careful with hand gestures


    A hand gesture that is commonplace and means one thing in one country need not mean the same in another. I discovered a YouTube video that perfectly describes 7 of the most common US hand gestures that could get you into trouble if used in other countries.


    For my Texas Longhorn friends, please take care when showing your school pride. Jenna Bush had obviously not watched this video before her trip abroad.


    I should point out that the commentator has failed to add that the two finger peace sign commonly used in the US becomes the rude version or the V for Victory salute that the British would give only when the hand is turned palm facing the other direction.


    I would also add that if you are going on vacation to Greece anytime soon then be careful as Greeks seem to have different meanings for many of these hand gestures.


    Let me know if you know of any other differences not on this video?



    The role your feet play


    Do you remember the man that tried to hit President George Bush with his shoe? In the Arab culture, to show someone the sole of your shoe is an insult and to hit someone with the shoe even worse. Being on the ground and associated with the foot, i.e. the lowest part of the body, the shoe is considered dirty. Another example of this type of insult was when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad in 2003; many of the Iraqis present were seen striking the fallen statue with their shoes.


    Don’t be too touchy feely


    In Muslim countries, there are strict cultural issues surrounding touching. Men and women cannot touch each other, even casually, in public. However, being adverse to touch is not always based purely on religion. The Japanese are culturally opposed to the touch of a stranger and will greet each other with a bow, rejecting the idea of physical contact such as a handshake or peck on the cheek.


    The opposite would be true in Latin America where it would not be uncommon during a conversation for the speaker to place their hands on your shoulder or arm. I must have some Latin blood in me as I often find myself touching someone’s arm during a conversation J


    As you can probably tell, I have had some fun on YouTube researching this article. I came across this video about the etiquette of touching in various cultures. The video is a little dry but it does have some good points. That said, when I moved to the US I was constantly hugged by strangers when meeting even for the first time, but maybe that was because I moved to Houston and the people in the south are just more friendly. I guess my US friends can put me straight on that point?



    Living as an expat makes you far more aware of the differences that surround you everyday. While these observations can make you a little homesick, they can also make you marvel at what an amazing world we live in, with its diverse cultures, and how lucky you are to be able to witness such things first hand.


    Happy travels,

    Cultural communication differences



      Leave a Reply

      Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *