Catching Cultural Cues

We just got back from a month in Southeast Asia—more specifically, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. My interest in communication made me very aware of communicating well when in a different culture with a limited number of people who spoke English. Here are some elements which caused me to be more alert, and sometimes embarrassed, because of differences in culture.

I would forget to remove my shoes when I entered a home or church. Stopping to leave my shoes outside the door is not my usual routine.

I was especially chagrined when I found out too late that in handing out certificates you shake hands with the right hand and then hand the certificate to the recipient with both hands. The “Kodak moment” was a little awkward.

I learned not to overreact when I saw monkeys running everywhere just as squirrels do in our area of the U. S. Monkeys are a normal part of the surroundings in both countries.

I learned not to become frustrated when at a restaurant the server did not bring the bill.  I discovered that I must ask for the bill. They consider it rude to bring the bill before you request it.

I often couldn’t find trash containers at convenient locations; there just are not many available (except in Singapore, which is surely the world’s cleanest city.) The same is true for napkins at any table—at a home or at a restaurant. I ate a little more carefully, and we often carried our own napkins to use inconspicuously when needed.

I managed to control my emotions when drivers did not give pedestrians the right of way. Crossing the street often took me longer once I realized that crosswalks were merely suggestions. I had to be more aware of traffic in areas where there were moving vehicles, for there it was definitely a case of “might makes right.” Both drivers and pedestrians are much more aggressive than in the United States. There is an “every person for themselves” attitude on the highways.

What can you do to fit in when visiting in other countries?  Here are some suggestions. Observe before acting. Watch how natives do everything—not just things you are uncertain about. Don’t be condescending, but speak deliberately rather than in our usual American way. “Howwuz your weekend?” might bring a puzzled look, whereas “How  was  your  weekend?” might produce an intelligible answer. Smile when asking directions or seeking information nonverbally. Accept the fact that there may be some hostility toward Americans. One cab driver announced when we got in the car that he did not like Westerners. “Go with the flow” and “don’t make waves” when interacting with people.

Avoid standing out in a group. Don’t stare at unusual dress or look lost (even though you may be). Take some time before you leave the room to anticipate needs that might arise, such as finding a cab at an appropriate place. Eat the food the natives eat. If you go to an ethnic restaurant, don’t order a hamburger; look for a dish with the most appealing ingredients and order that. Wear clothing that blends in. Modest dress is especially important considering some religious rules about clothing.

Finally, take your passport everywhere!  You may be asked for it even when purchasing a ticket to an event.

Embrace the culture of the country you are visiting. When you come home, you will be more tolerant of differences in languages, dress, and actions since you’ve experienced being the one that is different. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” 

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.


Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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