Can I ask this?

To paraphrase Obama (and who doesn’t these days): YES YOU CAN.

One of the most common concerns I hear from people going abroad is that they want to know more about something they have witnessed in another culture, but they’re afraid to ask about it for fear of offending people.

Of course it is excellent that people worry about this in the first place, as it shows a sensitivity to other people’s perspective that is very much needed when communicating with people from other cultures. So you might think it’s better to be safe than to be sorry, and stay silent. However, asking questions is also pretty much the only way to find out about something you don’t know or can’t explain, and to learn something about another person’s perspective. So what is an inquisitive person to do? The trick is to ask your question without offending the other person. I very firmly believe you can ask anything you want, even about taboo subjects, as long as you think about HOW you approach the topic. You just need to make sure that the other will perceive your question as curiosity, and not ignorance, boastfulness about your own country, judging, etc.

I don’t think anyone who is at least a little bit interculturally competent would just come straight out saying things like “in my culture we do things better”, but sometimes people don’t realize they are coming across as if they are saying just that, simply by talking about “how we do things back home” all the time. Try not to compare your culture to the other person’s culture until they specifically ask you to do so.

And don’t say “I think it’s strange that you eat with chopsticks/wobble your head like that/wear a dress like that”. Say “what an interesting habit, can you tell me more about that?”. I know, it sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised about the things people say when they are not paying attention to how they are saying it.

You know, just be nice and polite about it. And the touchier the topic, the more cautious you need to be about how to approach it. It’s always better to ask people to explain how things work in their culture than to ask what their opinion is on a certain topic. If they think the way things work in their culture is not right and they feel comfortable sharing that opinion with you, they will take the opportunity to do so. But ask the question in a neutral manner.

So what have you always wanted to ask someone from a different culture, but were afraid to do so? We can all brainstorm the best way to ask it. 🙂




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