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.

Similarly, U.S. businesspeople in some circles think little of discussing business over dinner, but other cultures prefer to talk about more relaxing subjects when they dine. U.S. businesspeople avoid disclosing their income, while Chinese businesspeople discuss salaries much more nonchalantly. Some cultures will discourage discussion of religion, politics or humor, while other cultures will welcome such topics in conversation. While living in Chile, I found it fascinating to hear about life under former leaders Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet; however, it would have usually been inappropriate for me to initiate discussion of such sensitive political topics.

A little research will help international businesspeople avoid bringing up taboo conversation topics just as research helps us navigate the many other potential obstacles that come when working with different cultures. Free online resources including the Centre for Intercultural Learning (click on "Country Insights") and ExecutivePlanet.com list both acceptable and unwelcome topics of conversation for many countries. Additional free and paid online resources are listed at Michigan State University's globalEDGE portal.

Our consideration in attempting to avoid taboo topics will likely be appreciated by international associates. However, when a taboo topic inevitably arises in your international business dealings, all will benefit by assuming the offender had the best intentions and then quickly – and politely – changing the topic.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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