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International Business: Taboo topics like weight are treated differently in other cultures

Published: Friday, May 13 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

Rules of social etiquette and political correctness differ from culture to culture. In the U.S. it may be taboo to discuss someone's weight, but people in other cultures find this topic as natural as the local weather.

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Years ago, in Chile, I was walking around a city on a warm day with a close American friend and colleague. As we walked up a hill, in business attire, my colleague began to perspire. A former basketball and football player, he was much larger than most Chileans and was in good shape, but inherently perspires more than most.

Upon reaching the top of the hill, a Chilean gentleman noticed us and stated the obvious, “You are sweating a lot.”

My friend shrugged, and an embarrassed but friendly smile broke on his wet face.

The gentleman then asked, “It is because you are fat, isn’t it?” The comments rolled off his lips as naturally as if he were explaining that the sky is blue or the earth is round.

My colleague quickly changed the topic away from this awkward subject and thankfully realized there was no malice or rudeness in the gentleman’s comment. Having lived in Chile for a while, he understood many topics like weight may be taboo in American culture but are completely acceptable for discussion in Chilean culture. If the comment had come from someone back in his U.S. hometown, the intent and reaction would have been completely different.

My female colleagues who have traveled to similar destinations may not have been as thick-skinned as my friend. Nevertheless, they have benefited by emotionally preparing themselves for similar comments. They take comfort in the knowledge that perceived slights or insults are not intended maliciously; it is simply a fact that rules of social etiquette and political correctness differ from culture to culture.

Another friend of mine, who heads up a Japanese-owned tech company in the United States, saw that these taboo topics change the way business is done. While visiting his colleagues and counterparts in Japan, he endured a particularly uncomfortable business meeting where his Japanese superior criticized several Japanese employees’ weight, telling each one to exercise and set weight-loss goals. My friend was puzzled not only by this peculiar spectacle, but also by the fact that he – the largest person in the room – was not told to shape up.

He approached his superior after the meeting to discuss the unusual situation. The Japanese executive quickly indicated that he would never discuss the topic of weight with an American because he knew it was taboo and wanted to respect such cultural differences. Breaking stereotypes, the American took the challenge to tackle his own weight issues and has since lost almost 100 pounds.

Some topics are discouraged by cultural norms, while others are written into law. In the United States, to avoid discrimination, laws prohibit hiring managers from inquiring about a job applicant’s weight, appearance, religion or marital status. However, many job applicants outside the United States have actually sent resumes to me that include such personal details or even a personal photo. To U.S. readers, such an application more closely resembles an online dating profile than U.S. curriculum vitae. However, to these international job candidates, such topics are neither inappropriate nor illegal in employment discussions.

The United States is not the only culture to discourage certain topics that others see as harmless. For example, asking an American male colleague how his wife is doing is generally considered thoughtful; however, such a question would be highly inappropriate in many Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

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