Navigating Cross-Cultural Waters

In the FIGT (Families in Global Transition) blog recently, Dr. Anne Copeland posted an interesting article about a study on cross-cultural identity and how we convey who we are.

Cross-Cultural Customs: Photo of people at an event, but what kind?

Funeral or Birthday? What Are The Cultural Clues?

“People transmit signals about who they are in countless ways – including fashion and physical appearance. Bright colors vs. black, neatly trimmed hair vs. scruffy-chic, modest vs. revealing clothing – all of these choices send a message about the kind of person we are, at least within our own culture. But what happens when we move to a new land?”

This so aptly described my experience that I winced as I thought back. I remembered things that had happened to me, the mis-cue of my Office Manager, early visits to government offices. You name it, it took time to get on the same page.

“When asked what they were trying to convey through their appearance, participants …most often reported the desire to project an air of elegance, competence, and beauty, but recounted many stories about how their appearance had been misinterpreted when in a new country. The suit that felt chic to the wearer was met with disdain by co-workers in a new country who saw it as inappropriate for the workplace.”

Talk about a fly on the wall! That perfectly described the morning my Office Manager waltzed into the office in a very pretty dress- light blue organza, flowy skirt, nice jacket- somewhat over the top but… whoa, put that jacket back on. It’s waaay too early in the day for this look! Ok, yes, I like the dress and I appreciate that you want to look pretty, but save that one for the “after-5” events. “The what?” she asked. I’ll explain it later-  right now though, please just take a cab and go home and change into something more conservative to work with our young students, please? She was trying to convey who she was, a professional young lady, but the kind of “pro” she was conveying when she removed her jacket was most likely not the effect she intended!

But, I understood where it was coming from. I was in the same boat on different cultural waters.  When I landed in Baku, I made almost every cultural misstep I could make, despite my daily dose of Molla Nasreddin parables.

The picture with my friends above was one of many examples. In every photo I see from that time, invariably, if I am with local hosts,  I am the only one smiling. And usually a very broad grin. That’s me, that’s who I am. I am outgoing and gregarious- and for a long time it showed.  (Ok, that was a giveaway-  you’ve probably guessed by now which is me in the photo. But, can you guess the type of event by the faces?)

Much later, friends told me that they don’t smile because the Communists said “only foolish people smile”. Oops! Well that certainly explained a lot!


Not knowing or understanding the cultural markers, in my first week in Baku I visited the university where Elmira (our exchange student’s mother) taught and did what I always did in Houston.  I dressed up for the meeting.  And, as a result, the photos are sometimes painful to revisit. There we are, 20 of us lined up for the photo, one grinning fool in the center.  Oh, but it gets worse!

Cross-Cultural Faux Pas: Hot Pink Suit in a Dark Post-Soviet World

Cross-Cultural Faux Pas: Hot Pink Suit in a Dark Post-Soviet World

I had packed several business suits, shoes and other things that we used to routinely wear in the U.S. (like pantyhose).

One particular suit, a favorite of mine, was pink. Not your average baby pink. No, my favorite was a skirt and jacket in a very bright hot pink… Yeah, this one belongs in the “What was I thinking?” category. Talk about standing out in a crowd. Oh, and did I mention that I even brought my matching pink suede heels? Sheesh!  Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time.   So again, here’s the image: 20 of us lined up for the photo, 19 brown/black/grey suits and one grinning fool in the center sporting a hot pink suit and hot pink suede heels, (standing out) standing in the dusty courtyard.

I admit all that to say, learning the cross-cultural signs isn’t easy or natural. We all may have to make some mistakes to learn. And we may not recognize the signs as we see them- it takes time to understand this particular “sign language”.

By the way– The photo above was a celebration, a party (really), though it’s hard to say for sure from the photos.

I didn’t know about the serious look for photos until I went to get my passport renewed and they actually told me not to smile for my photo.


After 10 years in Baku, I packed my three boxes to come home. By then I had learned. I brought home two navy suits, three black suits and three pairs of black shoes- no pink at all. My wardrobe had acclimated, even if I hadn’t completely.

It has taken me just as long to adjust to getting comfortable  with putting the color back into my wardrobe on the re-patriation transition.

Hopefully, I am still smiling though!



10 thoughts on “Navigating Cross-Cultural Waters

  1. You weren’t the only one. I remember being almost picked up for streetwalking by a local cop because I stood at the side of the road with my raincoat open (it was a warm fall afternoon) waiting for my girlfriend to give me a ride to the IWC meeting. Fortunately a neighbour who knew me by sight chased him off and then shepherded me away to a more discreet location and made my fasten my coat 🙂


  2. Oh my! I never knew you had that streak in you… And here I thought the Brits / Canadians were so proper!
    Thanks for alleviating my cross-cultural embarrassment, Judy- that’s a great memory (and a very good friend!). It’s interesting to discover the peculiarities of each place we live, isn’t it? That’s part of what makes the adventures worth taking.


  3. I can relate. In France it is not normal to smile at people that you cross in the street – for basically the same reason that the Communists gave. Only crazy people walk around smiling all the time. I also found out that if you smile at a man, he thinks you are interested and he will pursue the interaction. But I still can’t help myself, it just feels mean to not smile – maybe I am a bit crazy. 🙂


    • Margo, I hope we are all crazy that way! I’m with you- it would be hard to go without smiling at people. I had a similar incident with a man who thought I was winking at him, when really I was having a problem with one of my contact lenses and didn’t even see him, until he shyly waved at me and winked back! Oh, the cultural nuances we all have to learn! 😉


  4. Oh, this was fun to read! Having lived in Armenia for 6 years, I so recognized your Baku tales! After having just arrived in the dead of winter, I noticed everybody was dressed in black (or almost black) from head to toe. I asked my husband’s new coworker why everybody was dressed in black and she gave me a blank look. Then after a slight pause, she said: “Because we like it.”

    I know it is not proper protocol to send a link of your own blog in a post reply, but this is so on-topic that I think you might get a kick out of it:
    Expat Confusion: To Smile or Not to Smile –


    • Karen, thank you so much for “bucking tradition” and sharing this link with me. I loved reminiscing about my own travels in Armenia right along with your experience. My favorite story about Yerevan involved one particular hotel. I was there for a meeting of the regional chambers- including Turkey… (which was interesting, given that back story). We were staying at the hotel that later became the MARRIOTT. $64 a night- and that included breakfast! When the gentleman in the next room turned over, I woke up… the walls were that thin and the Soviet era twin beds were that hard. So, yes, I understood why no one smiled!

      But I also met some lovely colleagues, and loved seeing all the pinkish volcanic tuft buildings- so unique.

      It was fascinating to compare customs and traditions as I worked and traveled in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, between 1994-2004. When you were there (and doing what?)- I’d love to hear more. I’ll check out your other posts to catch up on your stories!

      Thanks again!


      • I was there when you were! From 2001-2007. I was writing romance novels while my husband worked for DAI on an USAID project. I remember the Marriott in both incarnations. Loved sitting on the terrace and watch the “princesses” stagger by on high heels 😉


  5. Interesting coincidence! And writing romance novels in the midst of that… fascinating! That period of time was what I called the “MTv” transformation- young girls everywhere let go of the past and wanted to become the MTv version of the future- sky-high heels and hemlines. Make-up and perfume shops proliferated… What a way to witness history in the making. Thanks for sharing!


  6. Love this…It’s worth a whole post on how women dress so differently in different places, even in basic business attire. I moved to NYC (area) from Montreal in 1989 and my clothes were hardly wildly bohemian — but I had just spent 18 months in a VERY stylish city (much more fun and more bohemian than NYC, for sure) so my wardrobe reflected that. I will never forget walking through midtown wearing gorgeous teal suede pumps with my boring navy blue suit — and people kept staring at my shoes. All theirs were brown and black.

    Which is why I work for myself and dress well but not in a way I find screamingly dull.


  7. Oh, teal. suede. pumps……….. (can you feel that heavy sigh?)

    10 years on and I finally just tried on a pair of purple ones last week. But did I buy them? No.
    Because Washington DC is about as colorventurous (in government workplaces) as IBM in the 60s. Ugh!

    Caitlin, I hope you still have those teal suede pumps, or the next generation of them, just on principle!


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