Cultural Secrets that I Know

Here are some cultural secrets that I know.  Enjoy.

  • African Americans who you don’t even know are happy to greet you on the street in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a “good morning” or a “hello;” Often, but not always, the greeting continues through “how are you doing today?” and “fine thanks, yourself?” A friend pointed it out to me, so then I started doing it. It was wonderful. It worked for me in Washington DC, as well, but not in Madison, Wisconsin. It works only sometimes in Seattle. A friend of mine who lives in Harlem took of a picture of a homemade sign posted on a… mail box?… saying “Black people should greet each other!”
  • The asian kids sit together in the lunch room because they like each other. Also, they know that nobody at the table will “yuck” their food out loud. I grew up with the value that people who “yuck” somebody else’s food are themselves garbage.
  • Asian folks find it *horrifying* when people put soy sauce on their rice at a restaurant. We say nothing because it’s rude to yuck other people’s food.  UPDATE:  you know soy sauce is not on the table in Asia, right? The exception is sushi, of course, where soy is an important condiment.  But for the rest of Asia including non-sushi Japan, soy sauce is a kitchen ingredient, not a table condiment.  So in North America that little soy bottle appears on your table expressly for the white folks, black folks, and Latinos that… well… they don’t know about/aren’t following an Asian philosophy of rice.  Long story.  
  • If you are a served a stack of warm tortillas, Mexicans will take tortillas from the middle, and not the top. They will presume that you are smart enough to do the same.  That top tortilla gets crusty and dry, but it keeps the middle ones steamy hot.
  • During the Easter season, people in the Eastern churches greet each other with “He is risen!” and the proper response is “Indeed he is risen!”  The rest of the year, you may use the standard words for “hello.”
  • Americans will give you a tour of the whole house when you go to visit them for the first time; when they visit your house, they expect a tour. If you don’t offer one, they will ask you for one.
  • Asian people greet their friends with “have you eaten.”  Most of the time it’s a courtesy question; the answer is “yes,” or “don’t worry, I’ll eat later.”
  • If there is a pole in the street (telephone pole, utility pole, lamp post) your African American friends might comment if you “split the pole;” i.e., walk on the other side of the pole than they did.  If you ask if they believe in that superstition, they may deny it, but if you’re close to them, they will comment if you do it again.
  • In New York City, if you yell “where do I get the F train?” at someone they will tell you, they might even STOP to tell you. If you ask them “Excuse me, I was wondering if you have a moment, I’m from out of town and my trying to find the F train, so if you could possibly…”  If you set up your question with all that, they will have walked away from you after the fifth word.
  • In Seattle, if you are pushing your car for some reason, men will appear without a word and help you push.  You’ll be pushing, and the next thing you know, there are men on either side of you.
  • There is a square of paper at the bottom of that humbao.  Don’t eat it.
  • There is a cupcake liner at the bottom of that big fluffy Hong Kong style sponge cake, in addition to the wax paper.  Don’t eat that either
  • In New York, if you sit at the bar, the bartenders will often pour you a drink on the house. This happened to me a couple of times in Spain as well. (UPDATE:  apparently there’s a word for this; it’s called a “buyback.”)
  • In Italy, if you bring your wet umbrella into an establishment, they will get annoyed at you and then scatter saw dust all over the tiles to soak up your drips.  In Taiwan, they have huge umbrella racks outside of every business, where you deposit your umbrella and nobody steals it.
  • The is very little speaking in a Mexican barber shop.  Silencio.  When I got my hair cut once in Cuernavaca, I was afraid to even ask how much to pay.  I just took out a big bill and let them make change for me.
  • French people don’t wait in line at a deli, they just stand patiently in a big mob. When you enter, you ask “who was last?” Once that person has had their turn, you know it’s your turn.
  • A Taiwanese friend pointed out to me that where she was studying in northern Florida, nobody ever said “thank you” or “you’re welcome” ever.  Instead, they said “‘preciate it,” and the answer was “no problem.” Another friend tells me that in Argentina, the answer to “gracias” is “por favor….” every time.
  • Filipinos use lips and eyebrows to point at stuff in conversation. Chinese people point with their whole arm, palm face up.  Americans will beckon you by reeling you in with their index finger. In Rome, we learned to wave “goodbye” to people by opening and closing a fist, with your palm facing your own face.  YOUR OWN FACE.

UPDATE:  I have a comments section below… but this post got linked over on Unfogged, so the real discussion is over there!

UPDATE:  October 6, 2013.  For some reason, this post got picked up on metafilter, and people are going to town on it.  Since my reading audience suddenly got a million times bigger, I want to make a couple clarifications:

  • These are cultural observations I’ve made, they’re my experience, my conclusions may be wrong.  Nobody is claiming that I’m an expert, least of all me.  However, I signed up for a blog, and I’m blogging my observations.  I’d love to hear if your conclusions differ from mine, it’s fun to talk about our cultures.  I am not making RULES for people, dear Lord.  Some of you are attacking me like I’ve made up RULES that you REFUSE to follow, I’m not, I’m just recording some cultural tendencies, that I’ve observed, and YES there will be plenty of exceptions.  If I say something controversial like “Americans like basketball” please take it as an observation of a cultural tendency; and not a horrible gross over generalization that is going to get your basketball-ambivalent family killed.
  • If I mention “Asians” I may or may not be talking about all of the people on the Asian continent.  In my community, it’s common for us to refer to ourselves as “Asian” as a shorthand.  Sometimes I use it to mean two or more Asian ethnicities who have something in common, sometimes I use it to mean Asian Americans who have something in common.  Sometimes we just have something in common because where not white Americans.  In any case, when I want to refer to all the people of Asia, I will use the words “ALL THE PEOPLE OF ASIA.”    I’m probably only talking about some of the Asian and Asian American people that I know.  Also, Americans like basketball.  Many of them.  Not all of them.  No one here said “all of them.”
  • I was exhausted when I wrote this entry; it was late, but I wanted to keep up regular publishing.  Sometimes the writing is poorly structured, there may be typos and grammatical errors.  I don’t care.  It’s not the New York Times, folks, it’s just a journal that I keep.  I heartily apologize if someone has assigned this blog as reading.  If you don’t like it, please feel free to read something else.  Whether or not your reading, I assure you that I’m making exactly the same amount of money for it:  zero dollars.

29 thoughts on “Cultural Secrets that I Know

  1. I like these. I would add one about being careful to whom you show the bottom of your feet. It’s considered an insult in some Middle Eastern cultures. It becomes an issue if you are crossing your legs while sitting in a chair.


  2. Middle class white people will say a food is ‘interesting’ when trying it for the first time if they don’t like it, but don’t want to offend the person offering it to them


    • jmcanuck, holy smokes there are thousands of people seeing this post now because you reblogged it. What brought you here in the first place, if you don’t mind me asking?


  3. In America, people keep cats as housepets. But in one particular city in Michigan, everyone keeps geese instead.

    In Arizona, a watched pot will actually boil. Eventually. It has something to do with the aridity.

    In Ireland, garden gnomes are not typically used as lawn ornaments. Instead, they are used as hood ornaments—and sometimes hats!


  4. While it’s true that adding that whole lengthy “excuse me, I was wondering because I’m from out of town, and….” before your question will annoy New Yorkers, it really is okay to add “excuse me” before asking “where do I get the F train” or whatever.

    I know you secretly think we’re all rude, but you don’t have to be rude TO us as a result.


    • It’s exactly the lengthy “excuse me” that I was talking about, not the quick polite “excuse me,” which of course you can use in NYC. Also, to be clear, you do not know what I secretly think of you, and I’ve never been rude to you. Thanks for reading!


  5. In the Rocky Mountain west (Wyoming and Montana), it is not impolite to stare directly at a person you don’t know in public.


  6. Don’t leave your shoes lying around in disarray if a Muslim is visiting your house; if a sole is pointing upwards they see it as flipping off God.
    In Asia, never ask what’s in the food. Just eat it.


  7. In the Netherlands, if you go and visit someone on their birthday and they have family over, you’re expected to congratulate not just the person having a birthday, but also all their family members.


  8. If your car gets stuck on ice or snow in Minnesota, a crowd of random strangers will form immediately to help push you out and then wander off without talking to you or each other nor expecting more than a wave in thanks.


  9. Asians in high school will often try and tell each other how much smarter the other one is. Kind of passively aggressively setting the other one to fail.
    Adult asians will mockingly, but quite vehemently, fight to pay the restaurant bill.
    Sikh weddings are pretty laid back, but maaasssive.
    If you beckon someone like a North American in Asia (finger pointed to the sky, curled towards you), it’s quite rude. You beckon people, hand down curling whole hand towards you.
    People from the UK will say ‘cheers’ to mean ‘thanks’.


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