The Soles of Our Feet

According to communications experts, in a cross-cultural situation, nonverbal cues such as body language and tone of voice account for some 85% of the first impression that you make.  Most people believe they have something great to offer when they go to a country like China to do business, and they are eager to explain it.  However, if the experts are right, by the time you get the chance to make a verbal explanation, you could have easily diminished your chances if you have poor nonverbal skills.  

There are some obvious body language differences (such as bowing or personal space) between East and West, but there are a few that are less obvious.  My personal favorite is what may be communicated by the sole of your foot.  

It has been my observation across the entire oriental (as opposed to occidental) world that to show the sole of your foot to another person is offensive.  I have heard various explanations for this – that the sole of your foot comes in contact with the filth on the ground, thus making it representative of all things dirty or that it is the simply lowest part of your body.  Also, there are some countries where this seems to be more offensive than in others, but from Casablanca to Tokyo, it is not ever a good idea to allow the bottom of your foot to be pointed toward another person's face.  Although it may be that no one ever points this out to you, Asians WILL have a less than positive gut reaction if you ever commit this cultural faux pas.

In those situations across Asia when I have attended events where we sat on the floor, it did not take long for my long legs to begin to ache while folded up under me.  When my hosts saw me shifting my weight and trying to get more comfortable, they would often tell me I should stretch my legs out straight.  While I appreciated their kindness, I never stretched out so that they could see the bottoms of my feet because I knew they would be uncomfortable if I did.  It seemed that in every case, the relationship was strengthened because of this effort and the fact that they "knew that I knew" what was offensive to them.

It seems that only in recent years, Americans have become aware of this at any level.  Following the invasion of Baghdad by American troops in 2003, I watched the news coverage non-stop on the day that Saddam Hussein's giant statue was pulled down and broken apart by Iraq’s celebrating masses.  I looked on with fascination as the people, young boys and grandfathers alike, stamped on the face of Saddam Hussein with the soles of their feet or took off their shoes and beat his face with them.  Some took off their shoes and threw them at his face, but all were very intentional that they wanted to offer this tyrant the lowest form of insult they could quickly think of.

As I watched throughout the day, I was it equally fascinated that not one western reporter or anchor commented on this insult.  Several times, they did make mention of the fact that many people were throwing their shoes or kicking the face of the statue—they seemed a little puzzled.  I kept waiting for some comment about the insults that these actions represented, but although the coverage began early that morning, it was not until about 6:30 in the evening that a news anchor finally offered a comment: "It seems that hitting the statue's face with the shoe is some sort of insult in that part of the world."

By the time Pres. George W. Bush paid his last official visit to Iraq in December of 2008, the Western press had finally caught on as they were quick to point out the extreme insult when an Iraqi reporter threw both of his shoes at the head of the president during a press conference.

Key takeaway: In every culture, there are numerous nonverbal behaviors that are seen as offensive, but about which a visitor may be totally unaware.  In most cases your host will be very tolerant of your ignorance of local customs and expectations, but you will score points when it becomes known that you have taken the trouble to learn (and avoid) a few of these taboos before you visit the first time.  While it would take years to learn them all, showing that you understand a few will go a long way to building a bridge between yourself and your hosts.

Originally posted on Useful Info About Asia

David Bishop
Asia Solutions Group 



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