Social Question

wundayatta's avatar

When you're in Rome, should you always do what the Romans do?

Asked by wundayatta (58638points) January 5th, 2011

A respectful person, I believe, will learn the symbols of politeness in the place they are visiting or moving to, and try to adopt them. To not adopt the local culture, seems to me to be a sign of disrespect.

But there, things get complicated. If adopting the local culture means giving up your birth culture, you would be disrespecting your ancestors. Which do you do? It seems like an impossible dilemma or boundary to straddle, and is probably what leads to so much of the discord between local people and immigrants.

Just because it is polite to act as your hosts do, do hosts have a right to expect visitors to act as they do?

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30 Answers

Blueroses's avatar

I think the role of a real host is to make the guest as comfortable as possible. In the truest form of hospitality, the Romans should adapt to the visitor.

This rule, of course, is limited to 3 days. After that, it’s a free-for-all.

bkcunningham's avatar

@wundayatta my mind is working very slowly today. I can’t think of an example where a symbol of politeness expressed by me would compromise my culture. Can you give me an example to ponder please? Do you mean like wearing a burka? (That’s the only thing I can think of.)

iamthemob's avatar

No….no no no no noooooooo…..

There are plenty of customs, etc., that will run contrary to a person’s fundamental beliefs and even rights. Sometimes it’s unavoidable to follow them – but that’s more tolerance at a minimum, and fear or concern at worst, than respect. I’m gay. I feel uncomfortable exhibiting PDA in a lot of areas (minimal – not gross, mind you) because I know that it might bring unwanted attention because of certain social mandates still around. I don’t respect them – I just don’t want to be called a faggot on a sunny day.

And there are times when it’s horrifying to consider situations where one would have to, and it should be considered fundamentally wrong to do what the Romans do. For instance, Guinea has around a 90% instance of women who have been subject to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I would consider it a gross human violation to say that a woman moving to Guinea should undergo FGM because that’s the tradition there.

Of course, you’re addressing more of the gray areas here…but I think that the whole point is that if the tradition requires that a certain group be unprivileged in comparison to another group, the more equality-oriented tradition should be adopted. Anything else is really about preference, and there shouldn’t be a shift to one or the other.

I think language is a good example of a gray area that people think is black and white. There’s a huge latin influx into the U.S. So many statements from people discussing immigration reform mention people should have to learn English, or talk about people learning the language as those who immigrate properly, etc. But a shift in our demographic reasonably imposes a duty on us to start learning Spanish as well in order to get our society flowing more efficiently as well. Not that people should be required to, or that people who speak Spanish should be deemed a-ok in my eyes if they don’t ever want to learn English – but if we have 30% of the people speaking Spanish as a first language, why is it wrong to consider Spanish as an official language, in addition to English (percentage only an example, all. ;-)).

@bkcunningham – those are some more examples.

incendiary_dan's avatar

“When in Rome, do as the Roma do.” I consider that much better advice.

anartist's avatar

If it is a custom for the host to offer his wife or daughter to a male guest, should you accept?
If it is a custom to eat live monkey brain, should you partake?

bkcunningham's avatar

Okay, @iamthemob I see how you are thinking. I was thinking like hospitality issues in different cultures. Like saying a prayer before a meal when a visitor in a home, bringing wine to an Islamic home or pressing noses. BTW, just IMHO, I don’t think a female visitor would be expected to have female circumcision. Nor would I advise gay PDA in an Islamic country.

@anartist I’m allergic to monkey brain.

iamthemob's avatar

@bkcunningham – I think that it involves both (the last sentence pushes it to the visitors side) but I think that there are rights-violations associated with visiting as well – I think the burka is a good example, as well as the gay PDA that you mentioned – but that’s not really limited to Islamic countries at all.

But when it comes to hospitality only – I think that there are very few issues that would fall into the “no way, jose” situation that we’d encounter, considering that people who have such broad and conflicting traditions would most likely not be visiting each other.

wundayatta's avatar

So far, it sounds like people are saying that to some degree you respect the host’s culture, but you also have to respect your own. The question is where do we draw the line? Clearly, with female circumcision, Westerners might say they refuse to do it, no matter how the host treats them. It’s kind of like in Saudi Arabia, where Western women might be tolerated in public if they wear something on their heads and full length garments, but local girls would be punished severely if they are even seen in public.

@iamthemob raises some interesting examples. Who should learn who’s language? Does it depend on a critical mass relative to the native mass of people? Or does it not matter at all. They’re here. They have to learn English. Or does the marketplace prevail? Clearly we see all of these examples across the nation.

But what about food? Should people adopt the host food, or can it still be polite to keep your own food? What if that food is really smelly and offends local noses? What if it is really gross to local palates? What if everyone needs their own plate in the host nation in order to avoid passing around germs, but in your home culture, everyone eats out of the same pot—using their hands…. that were just cleaning out the pig stall and weren’t washed because there is a shortage of water? You internalize those facts of life, and do the same thing in your host country and people see you and think you are violating all kinds of manners.

And cleanliness habits. What if it’s not cool to spit in your host nation, but people spit all kinds of shit at home?

We can probably cite example all day and well into next week. And that’s useful to give us a base of things to talk about. But in the end, I’m wonder if there’s any kind of consensus possible, and if so, what is it?

Seelix's avatar

Don’t drive like the Romans do!

wundayatta's avatar

@Seelix Oh come on! That’s half the fun of following your host’s habits!

JLeslie's avatar

Generally, I lean towards when in Roma do as the Romans do. Now, being a temporary visitor, or tourist, is very different than relocating to a new place for a significant period of time or permanently. I think we should have tolerance for new immigrants and tourists who might not be familiar with our customs yet, just as I would want if I am visiting someone elses country or region. Over time though, I think people should conform to the expectations of their community. They moved there for a reason, right? Sometimes the culture of a society is intwined with the success of that country, and if the country appeals to you, you might need to pause and understand that possibly their way of doing things contributes to why that country, city, community is successful.

Also, you can have both many times. You can keep traditions, foods, and language in your home, while adjusting when outside at work or in other public arenas.

Moreover, it is not necessarily one way is more right, sometimes it is simply different.

Sometimes it is hard though. When it has to do with personality traits it can be difficult to adjust. I have found some places to be more passive aggressive, and I find that very difficult. I am more straight forward, more discussion oriented, and quick to give opinions, but open to hear others.

I pretty much conform with little difference here in the south, having grown up in the north, but some are difficult for me. One stand out is Miss firstname. I use it if someone specifically asks me to call them that, but I never come up with that myself. If someone calls me Miss Firstname I ask them to please call me firstname. If it is a child, I allow them to call me miss firstname, because it seems here what they deem as respecftul in this regard matters more than what the individual prefers to be called.

I wonder if southerners have ever noticed when they call an 800 number no one ever uses miss firstname, and that we never see it on TV, unless it is specifically a southern show?

Spitting is disgusting, and having grown up NY and DC area, I will never get used to it, or find it acceptable.

Which leads me to following the law of the country. Pretty much I feel law comes before your own traditions.

wundayatta's avatar

@JLeslie Maybe you’ve heard this story before. I used to buy coffee at this one place (all right, a Starbucks) every morning. Of course, the staff got to know me (would they remember me now?) and would all greet me by name, except for one who always called me Mr. Wundy.

It really bothered me. I couldn’t figure out why she was doing it. She was African-American, so all I could think of was that it was some custom I didn’t know about.

Finally I asked her and she told me —what you know but was news to me—that she was from the South, and it was something that people did down there as a sort of compromise between complete formality (Mr. Atta) and presumption of equality that seems to indicate a lack of respect to some (Wundy).

I had been thinking of asking her to stop, but after I heard her explanation, I decided I liked the compromise. After that, another girl who worked there started calling me Mr. Wundy.

iamthemob's avatar

@wundayatta – I don’t really know if consensus will ever be reached. But I don’t think we need to reach it, as the compromise you mentioned isn’t really consensus so much as understanding.

We’re raised to consider one thing or another rude. It’s friendly in some places to chit-chat with the cashier whenever. I consider it rude if it’s slowing up the line, as do most I know raised with me. But in the end, very little is objectively rude.

I think that the best solutions come when we ask each other about things, instead of assuming what they mean. As in your example…once you know why it’s happening, it’s clear whether it’s meant to be offensive.

You’re not going to be able to stop people from doing things in public you think are upsetting. But if you’re consistently interacting with anyone, you also shouldn’t let assumptions about why they’re doing something that bothers you create a problem when it’s just as easy to ask, “Why do you do that” in a pleasant way.

That is, unless it’s considered rude to ask. ;-)

bkcunningham's avatar

@iamthemob see? If you had been in line behind @wundayatta at Starbucks when she was conversing with the woman; you would have thought she was being rude for holding you up in line. Instead she was interacting and asking why. ; )

iamthemob's avatar

@bkcunningham – If I had been in line while that was going on, you best believe I would have asked why they needed to sort that out then. ;-)

wundayatta's avatar

@It was a moment when she had time. She was preparing my drink, so she could talk and prepare at the same time, and she didn’t have another order.

I never would have asked in front of anyone else, anyway. I wouldn’t have wanted to discomfit her, and I don’t want the general public knowing my business. It’s bad enough they all hear her calling me Mr Wundy. The should hear me asking why, as well? [Appropriate Yiddish phrase here].

JLeslie's avatar

@wundayatta I don’t remember that story. Interesting that you liked her explanation. For me Miss Firstname conjures up Miss Scarlet, the old south, false respect, and lack of education, even though I know it is not used that way at present. I have to fight back that feeling with logic.

In NYC it probably seems like this neat thing that the southern lady does. And, New Yorkers tend to be tolerant of cultural differences and interested in why people do things, the explanation behind the behavior. For you it is something unique to that woman in that establishment.

But, now imagine you move next door to me, and many many people address you Mr. Wunday, and your children are expected to use it with all adults they interact with. Your friends, their teachers. What do you think now?

CaptainHarley's avatar

Of course not. As an extreme example, some very backward cultures still have what they call “honor killings.” I could never be associated with such a culture!

JLeslie's avatar

@CaptainHarley So, you would not even be there, in the country where honor killings are permitted if I understand your comment. To me that is not the question at hand. This is asking when you visit or live in a place that has cultural differences.

CaptainHarley's avatar


I have been trained to adapt to virtually any culture where I was expected to work. I have had no problem adapting to Japanese, Korean, Vietmaese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, Indonesian, and several other cultures. Almost no cultural differences bother me. I have eaten goat, rat, snake, unborn duck, and many other, less easily identifiable foods. As far as I know, only “cultural differences” involving the oppression of others would prevent me from becoming acculturated very quickly.

JLeslie's avatar

@CaptainHarley So you do adapt, you do show respect, and an interest in the culture you are visiting or living in at the time. That is what I would have assumed about you. But your first answer was a flat no with an extreme example.

CaptainHarley's avatar


Yeah. I’m funny that way. : )

JLeslie's avatar

@CaptainHarley I just find it interesting that the thing that pops into your mind is the thing you absolutely would not do, while I am thinking about all of these little nuances in culture. I don’t mean it as a criticism, just interesting.

tinyfaery's avatar

Nope. I have certain ideals that are dependent upon circumstance.

CaptainHarley's avatar


Perhaps I know my exceptions a bit better? : )

tinyfaery's avatar

Oops. I meant not determined. Now that post makes no sense.

josie's avatar

You could always choose to not go to Rome and stay home instead.

CaptainHarley's avatar


I didn’t have that option. When I was told to “go to Rome,” I went to “Rome!” : D

JLeslie's avatar

@CaptainHarley I don’t think that is it. I was raised by a sociologist, so cultural differences were talked about all of the time, and I live with someone from another country and culture, and there are all sorts of stereotypes and generalizations made about my own culture, so I think about those little things and how they have directly affected me, even just living here in the US. Your answer makes me think you are around a lot of people who watch Fox news, and talk about why Muslim extremists are horrible. I know you well enough to know you have your own mind and you don’t follow Fox news or any other politician or spin doctor so loyaly that you don’t think for yourself, I know you have your own mind. But, I still get the impression, or am under the assumption, you have a lot of that talk around you. If I am wrong, I am happy to stand corrected. That is part of the reason I tell you what is in my head, so you can correct it.

My only point is what was at the top of your head, and the top of mine, I think is based on what is going on actively in our lives right now.

josie's avatar

@CaptainHarley If you have no choice, then I have found, as you have, that it is best to do as the Romans do.

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