The Time the Sole of a Shoe Taught Me the Importance of Cultural Awareness

Paris continues to be one of my favorite cities to visit. Of course, the food is amazing, the architecture is beautiful and the museums are world renown. Yes, we know. But there is so much more than that to enjoy. Paris is my favorite because of the people. I am not saying this due to their amazing fashion sense, wild parties, and love of life. What amazes me about the people are their differences. The people I have met in Paris have truly changed my outlook on life and the values I hold dear to me. One of these values is the ability to gain knowledge about others. Cultural awareness.

Being born and raised in Philadelphia, many of my views of the world were defined by social media and anything I could find on television or the internet. When it came to cultural awareness, most of the information I knew came from the cultures represented in Philadelphia or the ones that were mentioned throughout my university classes.

As soon as I arrived in Paris things started changing, and in that fast-paced city I had no choice but to catch up.

Although I can tell a million stories about the many experiences that have broaden my view of this world, one very specific night continues to cross my mind years later.

I was invited to a dinner for a friend of a friend. The restaurant I was heading to, I had never been to, nor heard of, but having seen the menu online, I figured I would enjoy it. Upon arrival most of the invitees were seated, which only left me with two seat options. Neither of which were next to the only person I knew at the table. But hey, why not get to know some new people, right? After the waiter brought drinks, and took orders, we all addressed the obvious, we did not all know each other so, we began to introduce ourselves.

Being as though we were in Paris, and majority of us were expats(non-natives) and study abroad students, we gave our name, the university we were studying at and where we were from. 3 of the women were from Eastern and Western African countries, two of us were from the states, one young lady was a native, and 3 people were from the middle east.

The food finally came and we began eating. The food was absolutely delicious. It was not your typical Parisienne dinner, this was what I call home-cooking. It did not taste like I was at a restaurant, more like I was at my grandma’s.

Dinner seemed to be going great. Everyone was enjoying their meal, we were talking about our experiences thus far in Paris, the people we have met, our university courses, and as usual, my home study program seemed to peak everyone’s interest. Then we started speaking about the fashion scene in Paris. We should have skipped this topic. The guy who is from the states starts talking about all the sneakers he’s been able to buy here which are not yet sold in the US. Then he said “I even have a pair on now.” Out of curiosity the one young lady from Paris said, “Let me see them.”

Mistake #1: He throws his foot in the air and starts rambling about how much he paid, which store he brought them from, how well they fit, the whole works. As he is doing this I saw the three people from the middle eastern countries begin to talk to each other. It seemed from my end of the table the two women were trying to settle the guy down. He looked agitated but I could not hear what they were speaking about.

Mistake #2 The guy with the sneakers realizes they didn’t see his shoes because they were busy talking, so he raises his foot again to show them. I guess he thought they missed it. The guy sitting across from him, goes from agitated, to irate. He stops eating, puts his fork down, takes his napkin from his shirt and throws it on his plate. Which still has quite a lot of food on it. He then proceeds to move to the edge of his seat, looks around and takes a deep breathe. All the while, the girls next to him are trying to calm him down. He pushes their hands off with force this time and tells them, “I have to say something.”

Everyone quiets down and now all eyes are on him. He asks with his eyes closed, “Do you all know what pisses me off?” No one speaks, because he’s obviously pissed, and no one knows why. Or at least I know I don’t. So, he answered himself. “What pisses me off is when people have no idea what their actions mean to someone else. If I put my middle finger up everyone would be offended. What if I came two hours late? Everyone would look at me funny. If I decided to talk over other people while they pray over their food or pick food off of someone’s plate without asking, everyone would think I’m rude. It amazes me that people know so much about western culture and how to respect it, but refuse to educate themselves about other cultures.”

He points to the guy with the sneakers and says, “You don’t even know what you just did, do you?” Without letting him respond, he says, “You showed me the soles of shoe. Not once, but twice! Where I am from that is unacceptable! Rather than sit here and explain why, I’ll let you all go home and find out for yourselves.” He takes a wad of cash out of his wallet, throws it on the table, gets up from his chair, looks around at everyone and with an uncomfortable smile and he murmurs, “Have a great dinner.”

That entire weekend I researched cultural awareness, and cultural differences. Whether it be attitude or behavioral differences because he was right. Often, we only know what we come across and for some of us, the people we come across daily look and act like us. Which says a lot about how little we know. The next time you plan on visiting a new country take the time out to research the culture before you go. If nothing else, ask around while you’re there. In most circumstances surrounding travel, cultural awareness is needed. In this case knowing is better than not knowing.


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8 thoughts on “The Time the Sole of a Shoe Taught Me the Importance of Cultural Awareness

  1. Great post. Whenever we are visiting other countries we must take time to learn about their culture, customs and traditions to avoid hurting anyone. Its amazing how we take everything for granted in our day to day life when we meet people we know around us.

  2. I don’t know, I think he missed a great opportunity to actually teach someone about his culture. If you are visiting a middle eastern country you should know the cultural queues but this was in France, so it stands to reason that people wouldn’t be researching cultural norms other than French or European ones. I do take the time to learn about other cultures to avoid offending but it wouldn’t have crossed my mind and if I were there I would have appreciated the chance to learn something new and to apologize rather than being yelled at.

  3. I certainly learned something! We take for granted our own culture and we need to research other cultures especially if we are going to visit! Great post!

  4. I felt like it wasn’t a cultural thing (or maybe is it because I am not from North America), but raising your foot onto the dining table is a huge no-no, I would say it is more like table manners. Interesting perspective though!

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