CultureCrossing.net is an interesting website. Attractive for diehard explorers and armchair travellers alike, it’s a “database of cross-cultural information about every country in the world.” A “user-built guide”, it allows people to share cultural tips and information and is easy to navigate and free to use. CultureCrossing.net provides information on over 200 countries. The information is posted by people who are either natives or residents of the countries covered. It is, however, vetted by CultureCrossing staff.
As well as all the country-specific information, CultureCrossing lets you ask questions about different cultures, connect with people from other countries, explore “your own cultural baggage” and add your own information about cultures with which you’re familiar. There’s also an ever-changing quiz to keep culture-vultures on their toes.
Here’s a sample question:
Slurping your noodles in Japan is considered: Bad form? A major insult to the chef? An act of laziness? A sign that you are enjoying them?
You can take the CultureCrossing cultural quiz by clicking here.
Information given for each country includes: Greetings; Communication Style – whether to be direct or indirect when communicating; notes on Personal Space and Touching – the appropriate amount of space to give when interacting with others; Eye Contact – how much is acceptable; Views of time – expectations about being on time, whether people give their time freely; Gestures used, along with their meanings; Gender issues; Law and Order – drinking and smoking ages, traffic violations, interactions with law enforcement agencies; Taboos – behavior and gestures that are considered rude and/or obscene.
There’s also a section on Business Basics covering what to wear, business cards, protocols for business meetings and how to handle negotations.
I decided to have a look at a few country sections. I’m English by birth, have British nationality, lived longer in Scotland than in England and have been a French resident for six years. So I decided to have a look at Gestures in the English, Scottish and French sections.
Sadly, the English section featured only obscene and negative gestures. No mention of a friendly waving hand in London or a thumbs-up in Chipping Sodbury…
The Scottish Gestures section was equally bereft.
For France however, I read “There are a myriad of French gestures used on a daily basis.” Here are some of them:
Wiping the brow with one hand means “That’s enough”, “I can’t take it anymore.”
Turning your palm upwards and touching your thumb to your fingers means “I’m afraid.”
Making a fist, touching your nose like you are squeezing a clown nose and slightly turning it from side to side means “drunk” or “tipsy.”
Loosely grabbing your throat with one hand means “unbelievable” or “yeah right.”
The “Bof” or “Gallic Shrug” is done by raising your shoulders, holding up your hands palms out and raising your eyebrows. It usually means “I don’t know” or “It’s not my fault.”
To indicate that something is expensive, most French hold out their hands with their fingers and thumb touching, and rub the thumb across the fingertips.
Maybe I’m missing something down here in Provence in the south of France, but apart from ‘Bof’, which you come across every week, I’ve only seen two of these. I’ve never seen the “I can’t take it anymore” brow wipe.Or the frightened upward-palm gesture. The twisty-drunk-nose thing is something I’ve seen in Sicily but not in France. (The Sicilians also have a sweet gesture for food tasting good – you push your forefinger slightly into your cheek by your mouth and twist it about a bit as if you were unscrewing a tooth.) I’ve never seen the throat-grabbing either. And I may be too Europe-centric here but isn’t rubbing thumb and fingertips together a fairly widespread gesture for Yikes, that costs too much? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it as far afield as Turkey, Mexico and Ethiopia!
If The French section on Gestures was a bit wonky, Communication was fairly accurate:
French people are usually direct but in a diplomatic way. They will tell you the truth but often in a polite manner.
How true! I remember serving French friends a raspberry pavlova with slightly less than crispy meringue. They wasted no time in acknowledging the flaw and gave me lots of informative tips on how I could do better next time. The tone was warm and encouraging – they were really interested in discussing perfect pavlova because, well, they’re French so they’re seriously interested in food. British friends hearing about that episode think it was incredibly rude but I saw it as, essentially, honest and helpful even though it made me laugh a bit secretly because it was so different from a British response. (“No, really, it’s lovely. Absolutely. Perfect.”) The French would say, sensibly, that there’s no point pretending something’s fine if it isn’t – it’ll never get improved that way. I’ve experienced the same thing a thousand times in Provence where I live and and Paris which I visit. Don’t expect a French person to tell you your new dress or hairstyle are great if they aren’t and don’t expect him or her to tell you you’ve made a good job of the tiling if they think you should have done it differently. Expect constructive and well-meant criticism and you won’t be disappointed!
The site also comments: Do not be intimidated if the French seem distant at first. They are in fact quite warm and witty once you get to know them. It’s worth the effort.
I’d endorse that too. Many new residents to France say that it’s easy to get know the French superficially but hard to forge real friendships. In my experience, friendships in France take time to develop but the French are indeed warm and witty when you get to know them. They’re very often creative and positive, charming and sociable too.
Many French are also hesitant to speak English, the site continues. Knowing even just a few words in French can get you a long way. This is sometimes true; sometimes not. Plenty of young people speak English these days and like to dazzle you with their ability. One neighbour’s son speaks English as well as I do but with lots of Americanisms thrown in courtesy of films and other popular culture. (French pop music is deplorable – no wonder the French listen to British and American music. French pop music is about as interesting as your granny humming while she peels potatoes.) The neighbour’s daughter on the other hand speaks English very well I’m told, but not with me. She’s too shy and insists on French. Other friends and acquaintances speak a little English, or more than a little, but take the view that since I’m living in France they’ll speak French to me. Understandably.
The last note on France that rang true was this:
The French appreciate conversation as an art form. They frequently interrupt each other, not to be rude, but because argument is considered entertaining.
Anyone who’s sat through a number of boozy, friendly French lunches or dinners will laugh at the truth of this. The French do enjoy batting arguments around the dinner table and people will jump on each other’s arguments enthusiastically.
The French are rarely rowdy in my experience though, and very rarely drunk in the way that Scottish or English guests may be. But then the Scottish section on Taboos does mention that “It’s rude to turn down a drink if someone offers you one” and “rude not to buy a round of drinks when out with a group.” Certainly true. It’s also true that the Scots have a culture of hard (often celebratory) drinking which has led to plenty of terms for being drunk – around 80 apparently, including steamin’, blootered, wellied, stocious, pished…
The French, in contrast to the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, tend to pace themselves with alcohol, serving it alongside food and water. There’s not the pressure to ‘get drunk’ that the two other cultures have.
Cultural considerations and differences, large and small, are easy to take for granted when they concern your own country or a country you know. For anyone planning a trip to an unknown country though, culturecrossing will probably be a pretty useful resource. It’s certainly fun to tinker about with.