Here’s a scenario for you:
You are walking on a busy sidewalk and an adult man in a rush collides with you, causing you to fall. He looks at you but gives no indication of apology. What, if anything, do you say to this man?
The Spanish, German and Dutch male twenty-somethings who were presented with this scenario in a 2004 study had plenty to say. They generated a total of 916 insulting expressions, which they then rated for offensiveness on a scale from 1 to 5 (least to most).
The researchers, who were studying differences in cross-cultural verbal abuse, narrowed the list to 86 “useful” expressions that related specifically to users’ language of orgin. Expressions on the shortened list were grouped into exclamations, curses and intentional utterances.
Hitting where it hurt
An analysis showed “strikingly distinct characteristic abusive language portraits” among the three groups.
Spanish respondents were most likely to direct their abusive responses to a member of the man’s family or a family relationship. Dutch subjects went for the genitals, and the Germans who were hypothetically knocked to the ground invoked insults related to the anus (e.g. “ass.”)
All three groups used referents to enhance their expressions of anger – with “genitals, references to physical and mental abnormalities, and attributions of sexually abnormal behaviors” preferred for effect. The preferred country-specific insults translated to English as: Spain (a male goat or person whose wife commits adultery); Netherlands (scrotum, bastard, asshole); Germany (asshole, idiot, jerk).
The authors explored these differences in light of what might be predicted using two of the most widely referenced frameworks of cross-cultural dimensions.
Relevance for cross-cultural interaction
While the authors were engaged in this study as a scholarly endeavor – e.g. not immediately intended to produce near-term applicable results, we can infer relevance.
First, it’s an indication that cultures, at their heart, have very different norms and do not always think alike when evaluating and responding to situations, including those involving conflict. Second, it yields some interesting insights about how to avoid insulting people while traveling abroad. And third, it supports the point that businesses and political bodies need to be educating their cross-cultural actors – not only about customs and issues – but also informing their thinking with evidenced-based approaches to differences in norms, values and beliefs that may underlie behaviors.
We have the evidence-based knowledge to do that, but it does require setting aside dedicated time in an instructional setting. Yet for organizations that are dependent on cross-cultural interaction, it is akin to whether it is worthwhile to teach a young child to tie his shoelaces.
Finally, it’s worth noting that all of the subjects in the study were male, a design element that the authors chose intentionally because others have found support that abusive language, to a large extent, is a male habit.
De Raad, B, Van Oudenhoven, J,Pieter, J, Hofstede, M. (2005). Personality terms of abuse in three cultures: Type nouns between description and insult. European Journal of Personality, 19, 153-165.