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Cultural customs all TEFL teachers should know

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All over the world there are colourful celebrations, traditions and tales that define different locations and give a certain feel to life on the ground. Ask anyone what makes Britain ‘British’ or what makes Thailand so quintessentially Thai, and they might all give you a different answer. From annual festivals to manners at the dinner table, there are all sorts of things that play a part in building a country’s culture.

When it comes to planning a new life abroad, it’s important for TEFL teachers to research into how their new home might differ from their country of origin.Something innocent and well-meaning could inadvertently cause disrespect, like leaving a ‘thankyou’ cash tip for your server in a restaurant, or giving someone the ‘thumbs up’ hand gesture.

Though there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to customs, there are a few things to look into if you’re not sure where to start your investigations. From gift wrap to greetings, here are some common areas where cultural customs can differ around the world.

Tipping at dinner: rude or respectful?

This is a source of much frustration to waiting staff all over the globe – either because foreign guests don’t leave tips, when the server is almost reliant upon them, or because they do when they aren’t expected – causing confusion about why the cheque has been overpaid.

In the USA, it’s standard to tip around 15-20% for most services, and many waiting staff are reliant on this payment to top up traditionally poor wages. In the UK, restaurants and cafes will often suggest or include a tip charge of 10-12.5%.

However, look to Japan, South Korea or China, and you’ll generally find that nobody tips. Leaving extra change on the table after dinner can even be misinterpreted as rudeness, and is certainly liable to cause confusion. If you’re in doubt, look up the general rules around tipping in your chosen destination so that you know you’ll get it right.

Simple greetings

Hand shake, or bow? An air kiss on one cheek, or two? Hugging, or a simple nod? The way in which two people might greet each other varies tremendously from place to place, and is also impacted by the setting – a friendly dinner or a business meeting, for example.

While cheek kissing may be the done thing in many European and South American countries, it could cause some serious embarrassment in Thailand or even the UK – where the Thai Wai or the classic handshake are considered to be polite. Even in France or Belgium, where cheek kissing is common, men could find themselves making a faux pas if they aren’t aware that men traditionally only air-kiss women on the cheek. For a man greeting another man, here a handshake would be the done thing.

Just as it’s worth doing a little Googling to establish attitudes to tipping in whichever new country you’re planning to call home, make sure you know the appropriate greeting style, too.

Interpreting hand gestures

In many countries, giving someone a ‘thumbs up’ gesture means ‘good’, ‘yes’, or even ‘I agree’. But in Greece, Russia, Iran, Sardinia and parts of West Africa, this gesture is just as rude as sticking your middle finger up at someone would be in most of the world. In Australia, it can simply mean ‘get lost’.

Equally, the hand out, flat palm gesture that might mean ‘stop’ or ‘I’ve had enough’ to someone from the UK or USA, actually indicates something incredibly rude in Greece. If you’re ever in Greece and need to gesture that you’re full after dinner, stick to holding your stomach so that you don’t inadvertently do something obscene.

There are other notable examples of these differences – such as the circle-shaped hand gesture for ‘okay’ or ‘perfect’ which can cause great offence in many South American countries – so you may want to avoid this sign at all costs.

The meanings behind colour

Did you know that writing someone’s name in red ink is completely taboo in South Korea, because this is associated with death? To write the name of a living person in red ink suggests, that you may be wishing harm or death to come to them.

The colour red is also associated with death and mourning in South Africa, but in Thailand it is the colour of Surya the solar God, and in China it is the colour of luck and prosperity. In India, the colour red is often associated with marriage, but has many meanings including wealth and power, fertility and love.

There are meanings attached to a whole host of colours, in just as wide a range of locations. For example, wrapping a gift in black, blue or green would be a faux pas in Thailand; the equivalent of writing a name in red ink in South Korea, due to the connotations of death and mourning.

Local people will often be forgiving of new arrivals who are still getting to grips with theirculture, but invest some time in looking up the biggest no-nos before your move so that any cards and gifts you offer are received with thanks!

Unusual celebrations

From the march of theKrampus during wintertime in Austria to the bright array of fiestas that take place just about every week of the year in Spain, you’re sure to experience some unusual cultural celebrations while living abroad.

Relocate to New Zealand and you’re sure to experience the Haka at some point, a ceremonial war dance which is performed before sports matches and at celebrations like birthdays, weddings or graduations.

The menacing expressions, foot-stamping and tongue-waggling of the Haka might not look like your typical wedding dance, but this awe-inspiring performance sits at the heart of New Zealand culture, uniting the native Maori people and general population in a way that is unique to this part of the world.

From the annual monkey buffet in Thailand and Witches’ Night in the Czech Republic to La Tomatina in Spain and England’s wacky CheeseRolling event, there are plenty of interesting and unusual traditions the world over.

Other things to consider

Of course, these are just a few of the cultural customs that TEFL teachers should be familiar with. Every location has its own way of life, typically completed by small details that can seem strange and fascinating to newcomers.

A country’s culture often impacts the way people live day to day, which is why it’s so essential to understand and integrate into the culture of your new home. For example, in China, Chinese values and beliefs intertwine with the concept of health, medicine and healthcare. Acupuncture, herbal treatments and diet therapy are all common practices in China, and find roots in Chinese beliefs and values.

So, wherever you’re planning on moving to, or wherever you have just touched down, get stuck in to some thorough cultural research. Is it rude to point your feet at someone, as in Thailand? Is it best to eat all of your food to show appreciation, or to leave a little on your plate to indicate that your host has fed you well? Thanks to the internet, it doesn’t take long to pinpoint the do’s and don’ts of your new home, so you can quickly start living like a local.

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