There is a wonderful article in today's (11 June 2008) New York Times by Michael Slackman entitled "Don't Leave Home Without a Cultural Compass". Here are a few quotations that I respond to:
Navigating Egypt can be a challenge of understanding, and not just language but also culture, values, norms. A pile of trash may look like litter to a foreigner, but it is a commodity to poor people who recycle and reuse almost everything. In Egypt, it is routine, absolutely routine, to get the wrong directions.
That is not because people are mischievous, but because if you ask for help, they feel obligated to try to help — even if they send you off in the wrong direction.
I am not going to say that the same applies to Việt Nam as a cultural norm, but this has certainly been my experience here in southern Vietnam. I have learned to triangulate between several different sets of directions given. The article goes on:
“Here, even if someone sends you in the wrong direction, he still feels that he did what he was supposed to do,” said Hamdi Taha, head of a charity, Karam al-Islam, and a professor of communications at Al Azhar University. “He doesn’t think he misguided you. He helped. Right and wrong is a relative thing.”
The point of the article is that we, and especially our current president and State Department, have lost our ability to be sensitive to the small cultural differences that contribute to understanding of larger issues between us.
It is those kinds of assumptions — that the citizens of foreign countries want to be liberated by America and live like Americans — that can really get under people’s skin. Egyptians may give out wrong directions — but only when they are asked for directions.