Cultural faux pas: We all make them

An AFS student's Turkish host family reacts to his cultural faux pas at the dinner table.

Making a cultural faux pas while studying abroad can be incredibly embarrassing. Maybe you offended your dear, sweet host mother; accidentally defied your teacher; did the wrong thing on the bus; ordered the wrong thing at the restaurant... The possibilities are endless.

But, so is your resilience! Many people find that, when they are abroad, they become bolder versions of themselves - better able to shake off embarrassment and bounce back from challenges. And in the process, they grow so much more than they ever could have in easier, more familiar surroundings.

Nonetheless, the thought of fumbling around in a foreign setting can be overwhelming. So, to help us all feel better about our propensity for error, here are some laugh-out-loud stories of cultural faux pas committed by real study abroad participants. Please read, laugh, enjoy, and remember that one thing you'll most certainly learn while abroad is how to laugh at yourself!

1. That moment when…

You realize you’ve been calling the furry critters in the trees “unicorns.”

When I arrived in Germany, I didn’t understand the difference between the words Eichhörnchen, meaning squirrel, and Einhornchen, meaning unicorn. The kids at my school either thought I was out of my mind or had a weird sense of humor, because they let me talk about the unicorns in the trees, and the viciousness of unicorns back home, for months before telling me the difference between the words!


2. That one time I…

Wiped my wet shoes on my host father’s prayer rug.

While studying abroad in Morocco, I lived with a Muslim host family in a traditionally styled home. The house had an inner, open-air courtyard that got wet when it rained, and one rainy afternoon, I came home needing to quickly check my email. I rushed across the courtyard to the room with the internet hookup, but before entering, I instinctively wiped my wet shoes on the mat at the entrance. Only after doing so did I realize that the “mat” was actually my host father’s prayer rug! He had just finished his afternoon prayer, and the look on his face was something close to horrified. Islamic prayer rugs need to be kept extremely clean, since prayers must be conducted in a clean space, and I had completely tarnished it. After I began apologizing profusely, though, his face softened and he graciously forgave my terrible blunder. 


3. That moment when…

You realize you weren’t supposed to put the WHOLE thing into your mouth.

While studying abroad in France, my host family ordered a giant plate of whole shrimp at a restaurant. The shrimp came out with everything still attached from head to tail. I asked how shrimp was traditionally eaten in France, and they said, "oh, you just eat the whole thing! You Americans are so wasteful and throw the best parts out." So, I popped the whole thing in my mouth and the table erupted in laughter. "What?!” I said. “I thought you ate the whole thing?!" My host mother shouted, in horror, "Not zee head!!!" So, apparently they don't eat the whole thing...


4. That one time I…

Told my host family I needed hair plugs.

Before I left for my exchange program in Germany, I emailed back and forth with my future host family. I made the fatal flaw of using an online translator to ask my host mom whether I would be able to buy a hair straightener in Germany, and I ended up asking whether I'd be able to find hair plugs in Germany! My host family was then expecting a balding 16 year old girl to arrive at their home.


5. That moment when…

You realize your bare feet are creeping people out.

When I was studying abroad in Russia, I would always walk around my host family’s home barefoot, since this is what I’ve always done in the US. I noticed that they kept asking if I wanted to use the house shoes that they all wore so I wouldn’t get too cold, but I always just said, “no thank you.” Finally, I realized that they found my bare feet really creepy. They were trying to tell me that in a nice way, and I couldn’t take a hint!


6. That one time I...

Accidentally told people I was pregnant.

When I studied abroad in Ecuador, I was hosted in a rural village, where not much English was spoken. I hadn't spoken much Spanish other than in school, and when talking to my host family and other villagers I mistakenly said, "Estoy embarazado." I wanted to express my embarrassment for my lack of Spanish language skills, but instead, I told them I was pregnant. Lesson learned: Embarazado means pregnant!