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.

12 Replies to “Cultural Insensitivity”

  1. Dear Shankar,

    I personally believe that “jobless” is incorrect English, even when used in India. It is plain wrong, and spreading such incorrect usage isn’t too good, in my opinion.

    What do you say?


  2. Well, “dear shankar”,

    I did meet one of those japanese shopkeepers you were talking abt in columbus yesterday. She was very offended abt you handing her the money. It really took some convincing from my part to make her realize that you are really culturally sensitive, and it was just ignorance on your part. So dont worry abt it……

  3. @Kumar
    well, yeah … its more like lingo … its wrong, but accepted only in the small place. i am not spreading it, dont worry, i just clarifiesd what i was saying


    i dont review what i write … i write it once and post it. i am sure there are many grammatical errors in the post

  4. I don’t see any problem with the lingo actually. People who hear it for the first time may feel awckward but I dont think it will always create confusion. Every sentence has a “artha”(literal meaning) and a “bhava”(context+emotions etc). Bhava is like a error correction code. We have o make use of it thats all. So is a listener is sensitive to these both I am sure he will understand when u say “I am jobless this weekend” because of the previous conversation and context. When a father tells his son , “I will break ur hand” the son knows that his father is just angry and wont really break his hand. We always donot understand the sentence by it’s literal meaning.

    Moreover, lingo is fun πŸ™‚

  5. Shankar,

    There were some interesting observations in your post. On that note, have you ever had people mispronounce your name? I have all but given up on trying to get people to pronounce my name correctly to the point where I don’t know the right way myself until I talk to my mother. It really isn’t hard, but I think it stems from predefined notions. Everyone’s mind is a little colored with preconceived notions.

    On a more humorous note, I was at a bar yesterday and a little buzzed after a beer tasting escapade at the brewery when I met a guy shooting pool at the table next to mine. After we said ‘Hi’ to each other, he guessed I was Indian and told be he was a Sherpa. At this point, my ignorant self said something along the lines of “Aayo Gorkhali”. The guy simply said that he wasn’t a Gorkha and they were very different. I’m sure I offended him greatly because he didn’t seem to smile much after that fiasco.

  6. Nice article, it takes effort to adjust to different surroundings, but, if one doesn’t, he/she risks being treated as an outcaste.

    P.S I didn’t understand how something being “lost in translation” is related to “cultural insensitivity”.
    One thing that I have seen, things like “lost in translation”, “multiple interpretation”, “coincidence” are used by those who prefer ambiguity to certainty. Maybe it makes them more comfortable, maybe ambiguity leads to a good night’s sleep!

  7. @ manohar
    lingo is fun. its wrong. but it is fun

    people call me shankaar when read my name. i dont attempt to correct them. it’s close enough.

    i guess they are different .. did not think much before writing it. when i was practicing for GRE, i came across a reading comprehension passage in translation and how it is impossible to translate things exactly from one language to another. they are bound to be some differences. I was reminded of that. so i decided to write about it.

  8. @nai
    had it in mind ….. but was too lazy to type it down

    stereotyping. hmm … well .. there is a reason why they exist πŸ™‚ … all the things i described above was personal experience …. except for tipping part .. that is a stereotype …but i have found three occasions where it was true …all indians … everything else is a generic indian “thing”

  9. Hey..this seems like a common plea of all the Indian students out there in USA?? Such little things and the mentalities that I wouldnt give much though to here on Indian grounds. And look at a writer’s mind giving it an observing look!
    (Aww..Shankar! The Tokyo story…quite funny. πŸ˜€ )

    Oh! btw..I’m “jobless” this weekend..shall come online. Cya then. πŸ™‚

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