Intercultural communication is confusing, awkward – and hilarious.

Source: Unsplash

In the past 22 years of my life, I have (on countless occasions) experienced the confusion and discomfort which can arise as a result of intercultural communication. For the first six years of my life, my family and I lived in Bulgaria. There, I learned the gestures, greetings and the various communication styles which are appropriate and acceptable in Bulgarian culture. However, not long after, we moved to the Middle East and I was presented with the fact that what I had learned through Bulgarian culture was no longer applicable and relevant.

After 12 years in Abu Dhabi, UAE, I had changed completely. Of course, I had retained the things I learned as a child but throughout my time in Abu Dhabi, I picked up and learned hundreds of different things about communication. Naturally, this means that I first had to be a part — and often, the instigator — of numerous uncomfortable situations. I learned that greeting people is done differently as when a man meets a woman for the first time, they should not be the ones to initiate a handshake. Instead, they should only shake a woman’s hand if she reaches out first. After learning this, I felt proud knowing that I was becoming more accustomed to the culture. However, I was soon reminded that I have a lot to learn when I reached out to shake a man’s hand and was rejected. Confused, I asked why. He looked at me as though I should already know this, and explained that I was using my left hand; again, confused, I asked what the problem was. Finally, I understood that it is not acceptable to use your left hand when greeting someone, waving, or even eating.

As you can imagine, I dove into a whole new world of confusion and discomfort when in 2017, I moved to England. Once again, I had to observe and understand what communication styles and gestures are deemed acceptable — and of course, I had to often justify my own. In the Middle East, I had learned to greet men with a handshake and women with a hug or three kisses on alternate cheeks. In the UK, I found that both of these greeting methods were seen as inappropriate or strange. Three kisses turned out to be way too intimate and shaking hands with fellow students at university was deemed way too serious. At this point of my life, I had already become used to receiving strange looks as people were often confused with the way I express myself.

Taking my awkward story further, there were also various times in which I had to explain myself when using hand gestures. For example, I often received judgemental looks when using the Arab hand gesture for “Wait” in England. If you are wondering what this gesture is and why it was never well received, it is because this gesture is also used in Italy and carries different meaning. That is, it is the Italian gesture for “Ma che stai a dì/ma che vuoi?” which means “What the hell are you saying?” Unsurprisingly, this was not the first time that I had to explain the gestures I use as even my Bulgarian relatives have at times criticised me. Unfortunately, twisting your hand has different meanings in Bulgarian and Arab culture. Therefore, when I twisted my hand to ask “How?” or “Why?”, a relative scolded me and said “Do not call me crazy!” As you probably guessed, I no longer use this gesture in Bulgaria.

Four months ago, I moved back to Bulgaria and I am currently trying to navigate through the barriers which communication styles pose. In fact, just last week, I learned that if you were to pay at a restaurant and say “Merci” (Thank you), then you are saying that you do not want your change back. Unfortunately, I was once again put in an uncomfortable situation when half an hour after the waiter had taken the bill, I had to ask for the change. He looked at me in a strange way and coldly said, “But you said thanks?”

To make matters even more interesting, I live with my partner who is British. After over two years of being together, he now knows that if I do or say something strange, it is probably due to a difference in our communication styles. For instance, in Bulgaria (and in other parts of the world) it is acceptable to make a clicking sound (tut) to mean “No”. In Britain, there is no such thing. Needless to say, we never stop laughing and learning things about each other’s communication styles.

Last but not least, if you ever visit Bulgaria make sure that you know that shaking your head horizontally means “Yes” and that nodding means “No”.

If you are confused, don’t worry, so am I.

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