Cultural Faux Pas

michelle-obama-and-the-queen
PA Photo
 
 
Many of the British news outlets caught it right away, while some of the other foreign journalists did not notice it at all. Now, talk is circulating in the media that Michelle Obama made a huge cultural faux pas, when she placed her hand on the back of Queen Elizabeth II as they were talking together. You can check out the video here.

Supposedly, it is understood in British culture that you are not to touch the Queen! The only time would be if she stretches out her hand for a handshake. Even this, it is reported that the handshake is suppose to be gentle.

TIME Magazine’s article gives a quick explanation of where the “rule” of not touching royalty comes from (last paragraph).

As journalists around the world have been trying to decipher this cultural faux pas, there are mixed reviews. Some people think it was an incredibly offensive mistake and the Obamas should have been brought up to speed about various protocols. Other people are brushing it off and saying that in the context of the interaction that it was “allowable.”

On another note, President Obama made a cultural faux pas within the first few weeks of being President. When British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was visiting the United States he presented President Obama with gifts. The gifts were pretty incredible in light of the context. First, Obama was presented with a first edition of Sir Martin Gilbert’s authorized biography of Winston Churchill. Secondly, Obama was given a framed commissioning paper for HMS Resolute, which was presented by Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. Lastly, a pen holder carved from the timber of HMS Gannet, a sister ship of the Resolute that also served for a time on anti-slavery missions off Africa.

It was noted by The Heritage Foundation that the, “HMS Gannet was not, as a casual reader might guess, employed against the trade of slaves from Africa to the New World, and since it was built in 1878, it has nothing to do with Lincoln or slavery in the United States. It sailed the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, patrolling against Islamist slavers. In the Red Sea, the Africans it saved would have come, among other places, from Kenya. Obama has made mention of his grandfather’s antipathy to Britain, stemming from his experiences in colonial Kenya. It is quite possible that grandfather’s ancestors would, had it not been for the Royal Navy, have been carried away to slavery in Arabia.”

Wow!

In light of these gifts, Obama then gave the Prime Minister a DVD set of Hollywood movies. Hmm… isn’t this something the Prime Minister could have purchased or rented back home?

Maybe following some of his predecessors might help. Here is a list of some gifts that were given by some of the former presidents

All these faux pas reminded me of how often we, Americans make the same faux pas when we visit other countries. Sadly to say, some of the faux pas come in the name of “missions trips.” I have made my fair share.

Therefore, what do we learn from all this?

Some things to consider:

1) Know before you go. Doing research and trying to know as much as you can shows that you care about the people that you are going to meet. The person walking into the culture of the other person has the responsibility of doing their part.

2) Ask your host. Some of the mistakes can be definitely avoided if you would ask the host first. This shows that you do not want to offend people and that you are thinking about their culture and norms.

3) Be a good observer. Keep your eyes wide open. See how people are reacting to certain situations. Look at their facial expressions and non-verbal communication.

4) Have a listening and learning attitude. When people from other cultures know that you are trying your best to learn and listen to what is being said, they will usually be more forgiving and gracious. Please, no colonial mentality!

 
 
I am so curious as to know what the Queen was thinking. She definitely showed maturity and grace by not over-reacting. This is something we have to always keep in mind as we try to be transcultural and interact with people who are different from us or come from a different cultural.