I was working at the United Nations today. A bit snuffly, I blew my nose & put the used kleenex on a dirty cup & saucer.
A wait staff came over & angrily asked what ‘it’ (the kleenex) was. Surprised & taken off guard, I was wondering if I was on hidden camera at this point.
‘Uh, a kleenex,’ I said.
‘It’s not food,’ he said in exasperation.
At this point, thoroughly confused, I sat in silence & tried to figure out what was going on. My glance raked the room & took in other bits of flotsam & jetsam, like used serviettes, on dirty plates.
Did I break some cultural norm? Had I unwittingly caused offense?
I don’t know. And even after I talked with someone who’s worked there a long time, I don’t know (& neither did he).
Working across cultures, with different perspectives, is sometimes like walking on eggshells. It’s a tricky balancing act. At times it causes more questions than answers. But then again, that’s what makes it so interesting.