Monkey Moments: What Should You Do When Culturally Adapting is Impossible?

What beverage do you order with lunch?

In the US, you might have a Coke.

In Germany, you’d probably order a beer.

And in France, perhaps a glass of wine.

For those moving to one of these countries, this is a simple enough behavior to adapt to.

But what happens when the behavior is not that simple? What happens when becoming “one of the locals” is impossible?

One of the Locals

Speaking a foreign language. Learning a special set of skills. Drinking unfiltered water.

Due to their complexity or the body’s own limitations, these are the types of behaviors where adaptation may be more difficult.

Learning a language requires patience, dedication, and time. Not everyone who is living abroad has all of these in abundance, especially if living in the foreign country for only a short period.

In regions of Africa, the handshake requires a special set of skills, because it’s rather elaborate. Without practice, the finger-snapping greetings are difficult to master.

And, in certain cases – like drinking unfiltered water in Africa, for instance – your body may simply not allow you to adapt. Although it’s the tradition in a number of ethnic communities in Africa to offer visitors water to drink, sometimes your health must take precedence over local custom.

And refusing to speak, greet, or drink may provoke monkey moments.

Monkey Moments

Although your inability to adapt may not be by choice, but rather by time, skill, health, or any other restrictive factor, this inability may still provoke monkey moments.

(Remember: a monkey moment is when your foreign nature is revealed to everyone through your actions…or, in some cases, your inactions).

How do you overcome these monkey moments?

If the short duration of your stay doesn’t allow you enough time to learn an entire language, learn the local greetings and short phrases. Doing so will show the locals that you are making an effort to communicate.

Don’t have the skills to master the complex local handshake?

Give it your best shot, and the locals will surely acknowledge you’re trying.

Can’t stomach the water?

Declining the customary drink may cause a monkey moment, but you must make clear that your health is the reason that you decline. Any other reason would likely be considered rude or disrespectful.

So, my advice is three-fold: make an effort, explain yourself when you physically cannot adapt, and respect the local culture.

This is ultimately what a successful cross-cultural relationship comes down to. We’ll talk more about respect next week.

Norms & Folkways: Right vs. Rude

Have you ever worn your outdoor shoes indoors in Japan?

Have you ever been ten minutes late for a meeting in Switzerland?

If so, then you’ve infringed on these two nations’ norms – and, specifically, on their folkways.

Folkways are norms that are traditional customs or conventional standards that a culture deems socially acceptable.

Folkways distinguish between what is considered right and what is considered rude. Right and rude are both based upon cultural values.

Paying the Tab

Say, you’re visiting your Chinese friends in Chengdu. They invite you out for a meal, and you pull out your wallet to pay your tab.

This would be considered rude in Chinese culture. The host paying for the group tab is their folkway.

  • Westerner Cultures – usually expect to pay for themselves, unless otherwise agreed upon. This ties in with the Western values of independence and individualism.
  • Eastern Cultures – usually consider it an honor for one individual to pay for the entire tab. Honor is a greatly valued characteristic in Chinese and other Eastern societies.

Shaking Hands

You may be thinking, “How many ways are there to shake a hand?”

In fact, handshakes have distinctly different folkways across cultures.

  • Western Cultures – a firm handshake and eye contact is an appropriate greeting in many Western cultures, with the dominant hand being extended.
  • Asian Cultures – a two-handed shake is a sign of respect, while a one-hand shake is considered both very rude and superior.
  • Middle Eastern Cultures – no one shakes with the left hand, as it’s considered “unclean”; if you go in for a left-handed shake, it’s looked at as an insult. It is also inappropriate for the opposite sex to shake hands.

Waiting in Line

While waiting in line might seem like it’s a universal norm, it certainly isn’t.

  • Some Western Cultures – queue up in a straight line. It’s considered polite. If you try to cut, you might be shouted at or, at the very least, glared at. Places like Canada, the US, Britain, and Switzerland take queue etiquette more seriously than others.
  • Some European Cultures – queue more loosely. In fact, the queue looks more like milling about. Russians, Germans, and Italians, for instance, are not known for their strict queuing skills.
  • Some Asian Cultures – do not strictly queue either. China and India, for instance, don’t abide by the queue. Japan is one of the exceptions.

Right vs. Rude

While neither paying the tab, shaking hands the wrong way, nor cutting in line is considered taboo (another variety of social norm which we’ll talk about later), you may be considered rude if you don’t follow these cultural folkways.

Folkways distinguish between rude and right behavior. They define proper etiquette and politeness. And they inflict a social pressure on individuals to behave and interact according to the accepted folkways of the society.

The difference between folkways and the other norms we will soon talk about is that serious consequences are unlikely to result from any violation of this type of cultural norm. More often, you’ll just be considered impolite.