I'm teaching a course on intercultural communication again this semester. The class is about half Finns and half international students, which is just the best mix imaginable. You get a decent-sized sample of the home culture (Finland) with a range of opinions, and then a smattering of individuals from around the globe. I learn so much from these students!
I have this idea that in many ways, there are only two kinds of cultures on any given issue. There are kissing-greeters and non-kissing-greeters. There are smilers and non-smilers. Small-talkers and non-small-talkers. And cultures fall on different sides of the dividing line, depending on the issue. We are all so different...and yet so alike!
At the beginning of the course, I like to ask about three things so the students can get a feel for how there can be "two kinds of cultures" on any given issue. I ask them:
1. If you were in class and someone sneezed, would you say your language's equivalent of "bless you!" out loud?
2. If a guest gets thirsty at your house, do you offer them cold water or room-temperature water?
3. How does your culture feel about nonsexual nudity?
So for the US, the answers are yes, cold water (right?? room-temperature water is NOT a thing in the US last I checked, but it is weirdly so much a thing in other countries I've been to), and NOPE.
Today we were talking about verbal and non-verbal communication within and across cultures, including interesting things like, would you tell a friend s/he had food in his/her teeth? How about an acquaintance? Do you smile at passersby on the street if you are the only two people approaching each other? Do Finnish people see the world differently because their third-person pronoun is always gender-neutral? Do Russians see the world differently because light blue and dark blue are totally different words/colors? How about Japanese people and the fact that a green stoplight signal is called blue?
I also told them about some things I've committed to doing personally recently, in the category of cultural behavior. One of the big ones is that I am trying to avoid saying "how are you?" as a greeting to Finns, but especially to my students, in passing. I have noticed that it's like dumping a burden on them - they stop, and think, and hem and haw, and finally come up with something to say to answer the "how are you?" This is not a casual "how are you?" culture, like America - there, it's essentially the same as hello! Nobody is really interested in an answer. (If we are, we ask it differently, or in a non-passing-by context.) Here, I've noticed that Finns feel obligated to give a thoughtful answer to that question. So I'm trying to stop using it as an in-passing greeting.
(I have recently started saying "bless you!" again, though - I can't help it!)