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Cultural Immunity, Cultural Ways

Published by Carolyn in the blog Carolyn's blog.

Wow! I finally got a reservation request for my new listing! My second bedroom, with its beat-up old furniture and its closet the size of a coffin, generated a booking at last.

When I saw the email informing me I had a request, I read the guest’s name: Dalya. Perfect! She must be from Russia! I was elated. I wasn’t happy only because I love Russian culture and it’s fascinating to meet guests from countries outside the United States. Yes, that part was true. But more than anything, my initial thought was that Cultural Immunity would kick in and hide all my idiosyncrasies.

I came up with my theory of Cultural Immunity two decades ago. It’s the idea that, when we interact with someone from a different culture, our little quirks may be dismissed as something common to our culture. If someone from another country catches me singing along to someone else’s car radio, hopefully they’ll think it’s commonplace in the United States. For many years, I taught English as a Second Language to students from across the globe. Like any person who stands up in front of a group, I sometimes said the wrong thing or mispronounced a word, due to nervousness, or fatigue, or perhaps lack of preparation. I also had the unfortunate habit of giggling when I made mistakes. It occurred to me once: Maybe, when I say the wrong thing or giggle at the wrong moment, no one will notice. If I’m speaking to non-native English people, they won’t notice my mispronunciations. And, if I giggle for no reason, perhaps people will think it’s an American habit.

Now that I have opened my home to guests from people from all over the world, I wonder: Will “Cultural Immunity” protect me?

For example, how will my guests react to my habit of hanging clothes to dry in the living room window? Must I stop that when I am hosting someone? What about the fact that I sometimes eat cereal for dinner? Can I pass that off as an American thing? Suppose I put the cat food on the floor when I can’t find the bowl? And, is it considered rude in some cultures to channel surf constantly? Do I have to wash my dishes right away?

Cultural Immunity works both ways. We can't be offended when a person from another country does something that Americans might think is odd. Once, a student from Afghanistan gave me antiperspirant for my birthday. Of course I smiled and thanked her. More recently, when I hosted a Norwegian couple in my studio, I gave them a tour of the lodgings and said, “I am here if you need anything at all! And, I…” “Good night!” said the man. What? Were they anxious to get rid of me? I’d only spent about five minutes with them. I wasn’t offended, though. I figured that they misunderstood whatever social cues I might have given. Yes, I was in the middle of a sentence, but their English wasn’t perfect. And, I was standing near the door. Perhaps they didn’t want to take up more of my time? If an American had cut me off in this way, I would have found it rude. A clear message: “Leave us alone!” Coming from my Norwegian guests, however, I granted them Cultural Immunity and didn’t let it bother me.

So, the notion of Cultural Immunity can help smooth out the rough edges of personal interaction. We know that our feelings and practices differ from those of other cultures, so we can cut them some slack, and hopefully they will do the same for us.

How far should we go in learning others’ cultural habits? We can’t possibly know everything; even if we’re well traveled and sophisticated, we may make a misstep. If we want, though, there are plenty of resources to draw on, including our own experiences. My favorite book on the subject is Multicultural Manners: Essential Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century, by Norine Dresser (Wiley & Sons, 2005.) Ms. Dresser shares great knowledge on interpersonal behavior across cultural lines. Her tips are valuable to us as Airbnb hosts. And you probably know some of them.


My guests arrive on time and find a great parking space. Thumbs up! No, not so much. That oh-so-American gesture of approval is considered rude in parts of the Middle East and in Australia. I think it’s safest not to go raising any fingers or thumbs if you’re not familiar with your guests’ culture. Not even a peace sign. If you don’t know the culture, don’t do it.


A Korean couple seems to avert their eyes as I chat with them about my studio. They’re not looking at me, but they’re not looking around at the studio either. In the United States, we’re so accustomed to making eye contact when we talk. So, why aren’t these people looking at me? Well, it’s not an affront. In Korean culture, and in some Latin American countries, it’s a sign of respect not to look someone directly in the eyes. No reason to be offended. Should we avoid making eye contact with certain travelers? I’d say no. Do what comes naturally.


I sometimes leave bright yellow sunflowers in my guests’ studio. What about my upcoming guest, a woman from Peru? No yellow flowers! Yellow flowers have negative meanings for people from Peru, Mexico, and Iran.

Surely the white roses are a nice touch, then? Not if you’re welcoming a guest from China or another Asian country. White flowers may signify death.

If I’m hosting someone from another country, I think I’d just stay away from yellow and white flowers.


As I get ready to greet my Japanese guests, I choose four ripe oranges from my backyard tree to arrange in a bowl. A lovely gesture, right?

No. Remove one orange! The number four is associated with bad luck and even death among many Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans.


As I greet my guests, two young women from Japan, they smile broadly and incline their heads. It’s just a slight gesture, a short bow from the shoulders. I do the same, and I lead them to the studio to show them around. Later, I wonder: Was it okay to return the nod? Sure.

Most people know that it’s the custom of Japanese people to bow when they greet each other. I think it’s appropriate to return the bow, if you’re greeted that way. However, I don’t think we should bow first! Some of you may disagree here, but I think it’s safest to see how a Japanese guest greets us and follow their lead. I do NOT want to seem patronizing by copying their cultural habits. Besides, bows are complex. According to Ms. Dresser:
*When bowing to people from Japan, the hands should slide down toward the knees or remain at the side.

*The back and neck should be held in a rigid position, while the eyes look downward.

*The person in the inferior position always bows longer and lower.
I’d probably get it wrong.

I don’t believe it’s necessary to know all these guidelines when hosting Japanese guests. And, bowing is less common among some younger, urban Japanese people.

Some intercultural manners are pretty obvious. For example, we all know enough not to hug or kiss guests from other countries, unless they initiate it. For me, as an American, I think it's valuable -- and respectful -- to learn as much as I can about other cultures and traditions if I'm planning to visit other countries. However, as hosts, we can't possibly know everything about our guests' cultures. We all treat our guests with kindness and respect. I think it's okay if we make the occasional blunder.

Meanwhile, I’ll be welcoming guests into my home now, so it’s a whole new level of intimacy – or distance. If I offer guests a snack, they may refuse it, and I can’t be offended because they may come from a country where accepting food from someone you just met is discourteous. On the other hand, what about cultures where houseguests always receive food? Will my little snack bowl and coffee suffice? What if a guest expects dinner on her first night at my home? Do I break out the corn flakes? Hopefully, my listing description is clear enough that guests won’t expect meals. Yet, we often improvise as hosts. I’d probably invite her to join me if I were preparing something more elaborate than a bowl of flakes.

Having cereal for dinner isn’t my only idiosyncrasy. I’ve been known to blow-dry my hair on the back patio, with an extension cord. I sometimes wear my bedroom slippers on trips to the market. Hopefully, my in-home guests from other countries will understand. I’m fine if they assume I’m just a crazy American.

Oh, and my first guest, Dalya? It turns out she’s from Boston. She’ll see right through me.

Carolyn is a teacher & host.
c. 2015 by author
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