I started thinking about it when I was in Israel. All this tremendous cultural shock and completely different way of communicating, so unlike anything I was used to in Europe or Japan, initially made me complain a lot to the few friends I had there. Why is X so? Why is A behaving like this? Is it normal? I must have annoyed my friends, and especially dear I., who was my patient and sensitive guide to Israeli culture. Reflecting on this and seeing how sensitively many Israelis I met react to any criticism or humour, as they feel that they are wrongly judged more than anyone else in the world, I looked for ways to put Israel in a comparative perspective. Also, when I talked to some expat friends, they could remember many similar stories from the countries they lived in. Yes, it is completely normal in the world that you suddenly become unattractive to someone who was previously showing a great deal of interest, because you said something critical about their country's politics. And yes, it happens that people don't even try to think what is offensive in another culture. Perhaps many of us, however well travelled, can hardly think out of our own cultural box, unless someone explains us what we do wrong. So let's create a useful resource to ethnic/ cultural majorities in various countries and make a list of questions that raise the eyebrows of expats! Those questions/comments were collected from my friends' and my own experience. By no means they suggest that everyone faces such questions or everyone in the respective countries asks those. I'm just trying to discuss what is normal to ask/ comment during the first hour of a conversation in some cultures, while it is offensive/ awkward/ surprising in others.
Germans in France:French abroadWhat did your grandfather do during WW2? Oh, how come you are German, but don't speak with a khhh khhh accent? Israelis in LithuaniaYou're French, so how come you speak English? Also, anyone in LithuaniaYou are from Israel? Really? But you don't look Jewish at all! Lithuanians everywhere south of their latitudeYou (don't) look [insert ethnicity]. Anyone white in IsraelMmm, Lithuania... Is it very cold there now? Is it polar day/ night now? People from the Baltic States meeting Central AsiansHi, nice to meet you, what's your name?.. Are you Jewish? (Women) Hi, nice to meet you, what's your name?.. How old are you? Ah, so why do you [makes a tactless comment about one's appearance]? (note: happened only 2-3 times to me, but everyone around reacted as if it's normal) Iraqis abroadI've heard about your place... Many fascists. Correct?So, are you Sunni or Shia?.. What do you think about...?I will add more as soon as I collect more countries and more comments. In general these differences show that things which are just 'information' for us may seem intrusion into private life or offense in other cultures. However, in all cultures there is a set of questions which you don't ask unless you know a person well. In many European countries and CIS it is advisable to avoid discussing ethnicity and religion. Also, asking one's age is considered rude. In Hiroshima it is intrusive to ask what people, esp. whose families have suffered, think about the way the US decided to end the war. When I was on a tour in Japan and we were supposed to get a few homestay days, we were advised not to bring up issues of politics, the Japanese emperor, and A-bombing in conversations with our host families. In Japan, telling someone "You're so pale!" is a compliment, while in Lithuania and the region it means, "Are you feeling sick?" In China (haven't been there yet) it is completely normal to ask, "How much do you earn?", whereas in most of Europe and the US (I think Japan as well) it would be considered intrusive. In Lithuania trying to read one's origins from his/her face is accepted, but it may sound at best confusing and at worst racist to some foreigners. Asking about family is acceptable in some cultures and considered irrelevant in others. Asking about politics may not be a good idea either, especially in post-conflict/ dictatorship societies. I also remember a Portuguese guy trying to place my political views on a primitive spectrum between communism and fascism. He made me pronounce, "OK OK, call me Communist" - something very traumatic at the time for most Lithuanians.And then there is a multitude of situations when a question or comment is annoying just because it is repeated constantly, which happens when meeting many new people in a new country. For example, there are many little things that I've seen expat Lithuanians feeling unpleasant about. There's nothing wrong with that, but they simply add up. "You must be having a hard time using a computer without a Cyrillic keyboard..." "Ah, you're from Lithuania? Privet! Wait, what else did I know?" I bet Russians are annoyed when the first image that comes to minds of many foreigners is vodka and a polar bear. Sometimes people try to look culturally educated, but only show their ignorance by making a reference to a wrong culture ("Slovenia is a very nice country! I visited there on the way to Prague"). But all of this is about countries, not personal stuff.Taking a second to think if something that is only information to me can appear hurtful to someone else is not as easy as it seems. It depends on exposure to other cultures and lifestyles, but exposure is not a panacea. Yet I think if we talk about it, it will help various people to get over their cultural shock. So I would like to invite you to comment - all of you, especially expats living in Lithuania.Update: for those who read Lithuanian, here's an here by an American student born in Belarus.