One reason that I am married today is because I had learned enough about cross cultural differences when my then future husband, a fellow physician who had just began to work at our hospital, came up to me and said: “We are going to the Christmas party next week”.

I was just about to retort back:  What do you mean “we”, Tonto* , when I remembered that Tagalog didn’t use the word “please”, and the only way they say “can you please” translates as “are you smart enough/strong enough/capable of doing this”.

So instead I responded politely, and by the next year we were engaged.

So when Michelle Obama broke protocol by putting her arm around the Queen of England, I wondered what culture she came from.

You see, Michele is working class Chicago, and they don’t go around embracing strangers there, unlike California, where so many strangers groped me on a visit there that I wanted to put on a button: “Look but don’t touch”.

It is not only protocol that Michele broke, but the idea that one does not make someone else feel uncomfortable.

The Queen doesn’t go around hugging every stranger she meets, because she belongs to the older generation.The Obamas play up their hardships, but how many remember that the Queen lived through the Blitz, and was a mechanic in World War II? which is one reason that the Queen disliked the emotionally expressive Princess Diana, who hugged everyone and had temper tantrums at small things in the Palace.

Understanding cross cultural sensitivity is important. A South American feels comfortable talking to you at 18 inches, whereas the average North American feels comfortable at arm’s length, and limits the closer discussion to close friends.

In the Philippines, our children (even those grown) come up and take our hand to their forehead and say “Bless”, but women greet each other by a light embrace and a kiss on the cheek.

Even talking has differences.

In Africa, when you meet someone, you first ask how they are and often how their family is before you start the discussion on what you want to talk about, whereas in the US you start talking right away.

And in many countries, the way you address a person: singular or pleural (Polite) “You”, or the shape of the sentence. Even in the US our syntax differs when talking to different persons, but often politicians pride themselves on “folksiness” which does not translate well cross culturally, where politeness, especially to elders, is a strict rule.

Hugging a stranger, even in the US, implies they are lower than you: like hugging an old lady in a nursing home, which is seen as a friendly gesture but of course implies she is incompetent.

The US are not known for their sensitivity, of course, which is why the name “Ugly American” often is meant for innocent gaffes rather than outright hostility.

On the other hand, the papers in Australia noted that Prince Philip returned the insult.

The difference, of course, is that Michelle Obama was trying to show her respect for the Queen, but Prince Philip, who after all is born and bred to royalty, was making a deliberate insult.

So I wouldn’t make a big thing about Mrs. Obama’s “gaffe”. She meant well, and the Queen was enough of a queen to return the compliment.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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