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How To Avoid Culture Shock At Work


A number of friends show the flags of their countries.

Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat may have gone to America for his cultural “learnings”, but for seafarers the effects of differences are closer to home. While the world is considered a small place – we even call it the global village – there are many different types of people which seafarers meet at sea. So how to avoid culture shock if you are a seafarer?

People stand and show the letters of the word 'culture'

How to avoid culture shock? Be flexible, don’t have any expectations and give other people their space


10 Tips For Dealing With Different Cultures

Let’s see what top ten actions you might want to avoid doing when visiting a respective country or meeting its seafarers.

1) In Western cultures, people are taught to look people in the eyes at all times; averting the eyes often signifies a lack of sincerity or confidence. In Japan on the other hand, constant eye contact is considered rude or even aggressive. For Russians prolonged direct eye contact may be considered an invitation to, ahem, more “intimate relations”.

2) In Indonesia it is considered extremely rude to point with the forefinger. It is especially rude if the pointing is towards a person.

3) In the Philippines if someone is buying you a meal, the invitee orders first. The invited should order items equal to or below the cost of the invitee’s meal. Not so much a problem onboard, but those runs ashore could be tricky

4) In China and other Asian countries, it is considered impolite for a person to pour their own drink. Generally an individual will offer to pour a companion’s drink and the companion, in return will pour the individual’s drink. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, so long as there aren’t too many of you!

5) In Bangladesh, the “Thumbs Up” gesture is considered an offensive insult.

6) In Germany moving your chair closer to the host is considered an insult – thankfully Bridge chairs are bolted down, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

7) Silence is golden throughout most of Scandinavia. Do not feel the need to fill any silence with conversation. Silence is often used as thinking time and the prelude to what will be said next. Some people in our office may struggle with this!

8) In many European countries, punctuality is essential and any possible late arrival should be communicated in advance. The British OOW will be mightily miffed if you are late onto the Bridge to relieve him/her.

9) When dealing with seafarers from the Middle East, handshakes are always used and can last a long time. Islamic etiquette recommends that one waits for the other to withdraw their hand first before doing the same. Always use the right hand. Do not be surprised if your hand is held while you are led somewhere…In most Arab countries, it is considered polite and a sign of friendship for males to hold hands when walking.

10) In certain African and Asian cultures politeness is key, and so the European and American style of direct and frank communication is not the norm. Blunt statements can cause offence.

What Does It Mean At Sea World?

If you have managed to avoid prolonged eye contact, not put your thumbs up, haven’t moved your chair, shown your feet, poured your own drink, made much noise or arrived somewhere on time – chances are you should be ok.

Unfortunately joking aside, cultural issues are a serious business at sea – especially with potential language barriers and with the need to react properly in emergency situations.

According to Captain Kuba Symanzki of InterMANAGER – the safest ships are those which only have one person from each nationality onboard. Where there are multiple nationalities in number, then cliques can develop and problems can emerge. Though there are different problems of isolation and loneliness which can occur –but that is another matter.

Unfortunately bullying can also occur at sea – and in the past there have been extremely serious cases in which officers of one nationality have bullied and victimized crew from elsewhere. One high profile example was the “Bow Mariner”.

Bow Mariner Accident

Back in 2007, the chemical tanker “Bow Mariner”, was en route from the US East Coast down to Texas, sadly the vessel exploded and sank 50 miles off the Virginia coast killing 21 crewmembers.

The 22,587-gt vessel was partially loaded with 3.2 million gallons of industrial ethanol and the vessel was ripped apart by multiple explosions onboard.  She was built in 1982, owned by Norwegians and operated by Greeks out of Piraeus. She was Singapore flagged and the officers were Greek, and crew Filipino.

Six dictionaries on a white background

How to avoid culture shock? It is a good idea to be multilingual but it is more crucial to be have professional proficiency in English.

There were difficulties for the US authorities in getting surviving crew to talk – partly because of shock, but some, it was felt, did not want to incriminate themselves. Eventually though as people began to open up, some patterns emerged.

The US Coastguard Technical Report Recommendations (USCG 2005) on the ‘Bow Mariner’ emphasised an interesting point, and it recommended that the owners review their internal policies and procedures concerning “workforce interaction and co-operation”. This immediately set alarms bells ringing when it came to the cultural elements onboard.

Bullying And Harassment At Sea

The comments from the US were eventually echoed by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, and they recommended that the Company take measures to improve the shipboard social culture and to ensure “social cohesiveness”. All of a sudden the cultural differences went from being amusing to deadly. With a crew lacking in social cohesion, there are massive safety implications.

The USCG report highlighted that the distinctions between the Greek senior officers and Filipino crew were “remarkable”.  It was stated that, “Filipino officers did not take their meals in the officer’s mess, were given almost no responsibility and were closely supervised in every task”.

The report used illustrations in which senior officers failed to delegate or instruct properly, and the conclusion was that owing to cultural issues, the Filipino crew had little or no knowledge of the technical aspects of their job, so much so that they failed to question unsafe actions or procedures.

A man holding a big red sign saying 'stop bullying'

How to avoid culture shock? Learn to treat everyone equally and have no expectations.

The fear of the Greek officers, who threatened their junior Filipino counterparts with disciplinary action, led to not only technical mistakes which undoubtedly contributed to the disaster, but no doubt misery, stress and anxiety too. Being able to cross cultural divides is vital at sea, but then so too is respect, empathy and understanding.