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Giving Thanks Can Be More Complicated Than You Think

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Dec 1, 2014 12:00:00 AM

Around Thanksgiving, our thoughts veer more than usual towards food, family, and, well, giving thanks. The first two of these can be complicated issues for many of us, but you might be surprised to learn that the last one can, too, especially across cultures.

If, like me, you’re a fan of the movie Mean Girls, you probably remember a scene where “queen bee” Regina George asks newbie Cady if she’s really been homeschooled, since she’s “like, really pretty.”  Cady acknowledges the compliment with a modest shake of the head and a quick “thanks”, concentrated more on explaining herself. But Regina stops her in her tracks: “So you agree?”  “What?” Cady asks, puzzled. Regina replies,” You think you’re really pretty?”

What makes the situation funny is that Cady’s reaction was a totally normal one to have, so we know Regina is just being mean and manipulative. But what if a verbal acceptance of praise actually did come off this way? In a study published in The Linguistics Journal, Hessa Al Falasi writes that in Arabic cultures, accepting praise is religiously and culturally simply not done. Instead, polite people will either return the praise, complimenting you on the same thing (no matter, apparently, how unexpected or absurd that might seem) or offer you the object you praised, as a gift.

These reactions are to be expected among fellow members of Arabic culture, but when things go global – as they do more and more often today – they can cause problems, from confusion, to thinking a person is being downright rude.

The potential awkwardness, misunderstandings, or worse that might come out of these kinds of scenarios aren’t just reserved for Western and Arabic exchanges, though.  Many experts also point to some Asian cultures, including Japanese and Chinese, that treat complements differently from the way we do.  Most people from these cultures also see accepting a compliment, no matter how humbly, as not humble at all, and will prefer to refuse or, in some cases, even flat-out ignore one that’s given to them.

There are even differences in cultures closer to our own.  For example, when I first moved to France, I was surprised that my enthusiastic compliments were often laughed at, or chalked up to American exaggeration.  Since then, it’s something I’ve also come to find funny – at the French’s expense, though: for most people here, the more excited you sound about something, the less they seem to think you really mean it.  A typical French compliment isn’t, “Wow, that cake you made was delicious!” but rather, “The cake wasn’t bad.”

If you’re spending the holidays with someone from another culture, or if you’re planning on traveling to another country during your time off, this is probably a good thing to make a note of.  Luckily there are lots of resources out there, from brief blurbs in travel guides, to extensive, in-depth studies like Al Falassi’s, that can help you out at least a little.

….Although there is just one more thing to remember: as a number of ultimately baffled international relations experts will often remark, people are also individuals; don’t just assume that because someone comes from a certain culture, they’ll behave by the book.

These uncertainties can be frustrating, but in the spirit of the season, let’s be thankful for them, too — at least they keep things interesting!

By Alysa Salzberg

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