Cultural Cockups


By Francesca Vaghi

In Social Anthropology, one of the first lessons I got taught was that cultures are diverse. This does not only apply for the big things, like speaking a native language, practicing witchcraft rituals, wearing baseball caps or the use of cutlery. It also refers to more discreet codes of behaviour, which can make an even bigger impact if practiced incorrectly.

An Italian-born girl living in Mexico for most of my life, I was no stranger to this concept. I soon realised that home is the place where you mess up the least in social situations. Of course, it was no different when I arrived here; I found that, as one of our first year Anthropology lecturers said, we inevitably commit cultural cockups in unfamiliar places.

A Cup of Tea Solves Everything…

I can’t say I haven’t always loved tea; I drank it before coming here and I drink it every day that I’m here. What I didn’t know is that I had been making tea the wrong way all of my life, or so I discovered last year. As I was talking to one of my new flatmates in our kitchen last year, I extracted a mug of hot water from the microwave and popped a tea bag into it. The look of horror on her face came completely unexpected to me. “Why did you just microwave that tea?!” she asked. “Well, it’s quicker than making it boil in a pot…” I explained, not seeing how on earth else I could make myself tea otherwise. “Uh…how about using the kettle?”

Yes, never before had I seen or used a kettle. And it wouldn’t have been a problem had my pragmatic skills been sharper and my sense of adventure stronger. But I hadn’t even noticed the thing. So I had to find out the embarrassing way.

Never Ever Have I Ever…played this game

Ah, the drinking games. Back home, these involved chanting ridiculous songs around

the table while forcing someone to down their drink. Here, it’s like playing Monopoly; take “ring of fire”.

All the cards mean something different, if you don’t pay attention you’ll be the last person standing in a crazy pose, and next thing you’ll be drinking the “dirty pint”. So, one night I met up with some new friends and we played a game of “never have I ever” as a way to get to know each other better. After the many uncomfortable remarks and dirty looks (because, really, who would have ever thought that she was that filthy?!), a girl next to me said “Never have I ever joined the Mile High Club.” I was the only person who drank to that, and the cheers and laughter that ensued made me feel rather proud. That is, because I thought she actually meant being one of those people who travel so much they collect air miles on a card and can sit in the business class lounges at the airport. And of course no one said anything that could make me grasp this; all they said was, “Tell us about it!” I said, well, I did travel quite a bit between Mexico and Italy, and now that I was here I travelled even more. Trying to be modest, I added “But, you know, all my family is in the Mile High Club as well, since they travel just as much as I do.”

Too warm for Scotland

To be honest I wasn’t expecting people to be so friendly here. As we all know, it is impossible not to make friends in St. Andrews. Yet, friendliness here does not necessarily equal bodily contact as much as it does in other places. I know I’m not alone on this one; how many times have some of us reached for someone else’s cheek in an attempt to give a very unwanted kiss? Too many of us have stood with our heads stretched out like turtles trying to greet a new friend with a juicy kiss on the cheek and failed miserably. The worst is when you decide to go through with it regardless of the reaction, and give the terrorised person the kiss anyway. Of course, since they are completely alien to this custom, they won’t know which way to turn their heads. But I can assure you, it’s always going to turn the way your lips are going, just because the situation can never be bad enough, and can always get a little worse. Alternatively, people will ask why you are smelling them…and I find it worrying that their first thought should be this, rather than the exchange of affection!

“To translate is to betray”

…as W. H. R. Rivers said. Language barriers can often be the hardest to overcome. If used to constantly speaking a language other than English, direct translations from your mother tongue into English can be fatal. Take Spanish, for example. “No te molestes” means “Don’t bother [with something]”. If translated directly, the English equivalent would be “Don’t molest yourself”. You see where I’m going. Some friends tell me it’s the same for French; “Je te propose” means “I suggest to you”, but “to propose” in English can sometimes be a little more than a mere “suggestion”. Other examples include “presenting” a friend to someone (as opposed to introducing), taking a “carpet” to class (from the Spanish for binder, “carpeta”) and being “desperate” (from the French, “désespéré”).


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.