Cultural Insensitivity

A month back, my friends and I were talking about funding for different departments and graduate research assistant stipend during summer. I learnt that some student get twice as much during summer than during regular semester. I hadn’t asked my prof about my pay-check then. I did concede that it was partly because I find it uneasy to talk about money. That’s when it occurred to me about write about cultural differences that I have encountered so far.

Profit is a dirty word

I had read an article (link) by Amit Varma where he talks about ‘profit’ being a dirty word during Nehru’s socialistic governance and later on until economic liberalisations. The thought of profit, and consequently money, being dirty have always been taught to us since primary education. I remember couplets that talk about working hard without really worrying about the result or money that you can get out of it. Also, I remember how angry parents used to get when, as a child, we prayed to god for anything materialistic. The idea that money is last thing to worry about is etched in our minds. Its hard to let go of such ideas in quick time. Asking for raise is not something Indians are comfortable with.

Even e-mailing profs for funding when going for an Internship is hard thing to do. Clearly, expecting money for you work is not wrong. But the idea of money being ‘dirty’ is playing its role here. On the other hand, American students are pretty frank about it. Unlike Indians, they do not go to grad school if they are not funded. Understanding local culture and adopting them and letting go of our conservative mindset is what we need to learn.


Indians in US are infamous for being bad tippers (it could just be a stereotype, but i have seen a few people in my university who refuse to tip). Despite arguing that waiters are not paid as much they are suppose to paid because it’s a ‘tipped-job’, some people refuse to accept what I say. We ought not to be so insensitive to any practice here. I believe that while in Rome, we should do as Romans do. There is a reason why romans do the things they do. We ought to respect that.

Japanese Shopkeepers Handling Currency Notes

I have guilty of being culturally insensitive too. In India, you are always taught to offer and receive anything (including money) with your right hand. Money is offered directly to the hand. Also, both the giver and the receiver should either be inside the house or outside when a transaction takes place. I think it’s just a way of saying, “I respect you”. There were two instances when I was in Tokyo when the shopkeepers asked me to place the currency notes on a tray. Forgetting that I was in completely different country, I gave it to their hand in dominating way. This happened twice. It was only later that I realised that I may have offended them. That was when I made a mental note of being sensitive to local customs. I still don’t know if I have offended them. Anyone who knows, please let me know.


Recently, I read about a case (lost the link … sorry) in Canada about an Indian shop keeper who had used the words, “I will kill her if he doesn’t give the sweets to you” to a regular Canadian customer. We Indians know that “I will kill you” is used in jest by everyone. But in a different place, the implications are completely different. The shop keeper was arrested by the police on a complaint by the customer about the “death-threat”. I think the mis-understanding as later resolved. Such thing do happen by accident but it is in our best interest to adapt quickly.

A lot of things are lost in translation. I have heard this statement, supposedly from Koran: “If people do not convert to Islam, kill them (infidels) by swords”. I do not think it is true but even if it is, I am interested to know the context in which it was said. For all we know, “kill them” can mean “ignore them”. Who know what it meant 1300 years ago?

Student in India use “jobless” to say they are free to do stuff. I once said, “I will be jobless tomorrow, you can call me” and they appeared really concerned. Two seconds later I released my mistake and explained the meaning of “jobless” much to their amusement.

Any such funny or serious stuff you guys have experienced? Comment it.