Do you know the expression “”When in Rome, do as Romans do”? This proverb is a paraphrase of Saint Ambrose’s instructions, who lived in fourth century. “When I am at Rome, – he wrote – I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are.” Nowadays we say this phrase when we are faced with the established habits and customs.
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Going on a journey we try to learn more about the country that we visit. We review the weather forecast, the news about the political situation, we take phrasebook but even prepared, we get confused when our gestures are interpreted incorrectly. In the process of communicating with people of different cultures, knowledge of the elements of cultural-specific non-verbal communication is necessary. After all, a sign which for us is considered normal in some countries is an insult. I can give an example of a very common sign – lifting up the thumb. It is understood differently. The American hitchhikers use it to stop the passing transport. American showing a fist with thumb up wants to say: “everything is good”. But in Europe a fist with thumb is mainly used in another way. If European pulling the hand up and pointing over his shoulder, it means that he is trying to insult you. In some countries, for example in Greece, this gesture means “shut up” so you can imagine the situation of an American, who is trying to catch a lift on the Greek driveway! In Muslim countries, this gesture is obscene, and in Saudi Arabia, twitching the thumb nervously means “get out of here.”
We can offend not only by gestures, but also violating other people’s customs. Any food which was touched by mouth or by used knife is called on the Nepalese – “jutho” which means “desecrated, polluted. Offering this meal is regarded as an insult.
And this is just one small example, which shows that our customs are different from others. And sometimes we even can not imagine that we can offend other cultures. So, if you are planning to visit a foreign country you mustn’t forget that other country’s customs and culture can be different from yours.