Peccadilloes & Other Innocent Transgressions

peccadillo_1_45637465A peccadillo is a “petty, little offense or sin.” And as you can imagine, a peccadillo in one culture may carry no overtones or negative connotations in another. For example, sitting in such a way that you expose the bottom of your feet to someone is considered an insult in Thailand and certainly something that fits the definition of a peccadillo. Unfortunately, the reality is that an innocent peccadillo could land you in jail as we just saw in the case of Dorje Gurung who went to prison in Qatar for using the word “terrorist” while talking to taunting 12-year-old students at Qatar Academy.

International Educators aren’t the only ones who accidentally commit peccadilloes. President George H. Bush, caused himself a hugh problem in 1992. While driving past a group of farmers demonstrating against US farm subsidies in Canberra, Australia, he thought he was giving them the peace sign when he was actually telling these farmers to ‘f#@k off.’ After being told about his peccadillo, the President apologized. Even a simple ‘thumbs up’ can get you trouble in some cultures. Most everyone recognizes the ‘thumbs up’ gesture as a sign for good or A-OK. But in the Middle East, a ‘thumbs up’ has the same meaning as the American middle finger thrust upwards gesture.

As International Educators, we obviously don’t enjoy the same support and security as American politicians who travel accompanied by the full protection of the US government. No, as international educators we are dependent on our schools to stand up for us should we inadvertently cause a few bruised feelings. The ISR web site is dotted with Reviews, Blog and Forum posts in which teachers describe how they unknowingly offended a rich parent, or disciplined a student and found themselves detained and/or jailed. Sadly, in most cases their schools abandoned them.

A recent post to the ISR Forum tells of a teacher’s experience in the Philippines in which his school called immigration and had him arrested for reporting the inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a 15-year-old female student to authorities. The school called it “libel” because the report brought unfavorable attention to the school. “In hindsight, it was a pretty cool adventure. At the time, I thought I was dead. We had a 6′ x 8′ cell for six of us. They gave me the bed (a raised bamboo platform) because they felt sorry for me. The other prisoners were incredibly kind. After I got out, I visited all of their families with messages and big bags of rice because I owed them so much for being so good to me.”

ISR can help you know if a school stands up for its teachers or simply throws them under the bus during a peccadillo crisis. Additionally, you’ll want to learn all you can about a school’s location and its culture before you arrive. Imagine landing in Kuwait and upon being cleared at immigration you give the agent a big ‘thumbs’ up…Now that’s a peccadillo!!

To read & share first-hand information on living in Asia, Africa. the Americas, Europe and the Middle East, ISR invites you to visit our What’s It Really Like to Live Here Blog/series. Remember: a peccadillo shared means a colleague may be spared.

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18 thoughts on “Peccadilloes & Other Innocent Transgressions

  1. A friend of mine who worked in Kuwait with me was traveling. At the airport, in a bar, on the way back to kuwait, she decided to spill her guts about how much she disliked the country and school. A kuwaiti man who had a son in the school heard everything.
    She went back to kuwait and evidently the man at the bar called the administration of the school and got her thrown in jail and then deported. Gotta be very careful what you say and do no matter where you are. At the end of the day, dont get drunk in an airport if your feeling negative about a gulf country…yikes! I guess us americans got used to “freedom of speech”


    1. I’ll add this to my list of horror stories about working in Kuwait, just in case I need a reminder not to work there!


  2. & then there was the time that i told my colleagues that i wanted to be the guy in charge of the microphone at the super loud mosque next to my house & play “we built this city on rock ‘n roll” over the sound system…but prudently didn’t say this in front of the muslim colleagues.


    1. At the risk of starting a firestorm, exactly why is it Muslims cannot laugh at themselves or even question their religion? It is at the heart of so much trouble and what made working in the Middle East so tense. I know tons of Jewish and Catholic jokes. Isn’t there an aphorism somewhere about the ability to laugh at oneself as a necessity of the human condition?


  3. Working in Saudi Arabia, I was the only non-Muslim in my department. I ran the weekly meetings. often we were interupted by the call to prayer. Usually I was very tolerant and stopped, the girls went to pray and we resumed at the end of prayers. One day, I wasn’t thinking and in my frustration I said….Oh God, not you again!
    I nearly died in mortification when I realized what I had said. I got away with a reprimand from one of my colleagues for being culturally insensitive. Oops…live and learn.


    1. Very lucky you were to get off so lightly. I got asked to leave a university in KSA because I let slip that “Palestine is not a country” (Well, it’s not! It’s usually referred to as the ‘Palestinian Territories”). The students claimed I was discussing politics in class, when I thought I was making a vocabulary point.


  4. Remember that your orthodoxy does not excuse you from virtue.
    Children always think their beliefs or customs are superior
    to all others. Stay home. You will be happier.


  5. & then there was the hilarious time that I met this local gal & drove her around on the back of my bicycle and stuff & then she gets to thinking we are getting married according to my friend the translator, oops.


  6. There are so many so called “peccadillos” in the middle eastern countries, but most are only half true and usually people are pretty understanding. Believe it or not, they get that you are a foreigner and may not realize what you do. The case of Dorje Gurung in Qatar probably escalated to the extent it did because of his nationality (I think Nepalese)…..unfortunately, in many of the gulf arab countries Asians are considered a lower class of people and are typically overtly treated as such. I know of a lot of American/Canadian teachers that did far worse than Dorje with impunity and without consequence.

    I heard about the various hand signs like thumbs up being taboo, showing the bottom of your foot, and many of my superiors warned us about mentioning animals like dogs and pigs during instruction. What I found is that most of my grade 2 students had been very westernized by years of being exposed to western movies, TV and toys. They know “thumbs up” is yes/good and it is not so unbelievable to them that people actually let dogs in their house or that the word “pig” is not a form of blasphemy. I am not saying it is a good idea to walk around savoring a pork sandwich and ask people to give you a “thumbs up” if they like pork… long as you do not come across as arrogant, most local people get that you are foreign and may not understand the offense of your actions, if any. Definitely do not give the middle finger anywhere…..not sure why you would unless you wanted to be offensive.


  7. Im in Qatar and Im always doing thumbs up with students and parents and even ine to tell a police officer I understood him. None of them, students, parents or police have ever mentioned anything about it being rude, or even suggested they are offended. Have I just been really lucky, or was ‘in the Middle East’ a sweeping generalisation?


  8. Don’t urinate in the ablution chambers.(foot washing station). It looks like an Asian long urinal along the floor in KSA and most washrooms outside any mosk, but any Muslim will find it really offensive.


  9. I found this really interesting to read, as this is a part of traveling and living abroad! It is horrific when a small cultural mistake can end up having huge consequences like the Qatar incident I think a lot of it depends on your school, your country, and also the level of respect that you have gained in your school…unfortunately I work at a school that plays favourites- so perhaps I might be given a talking down to about an issue, whereas someone else might be thrown “under the bus” as the Qatar incident.
    But I have to say as the above person posted, these also can be just an embarrassing experience. I think the point of this article is to be sure you understand some of the cultural nuances of the places that you live, but I also think it is important to develop relationships with the students and people that you work with so they can ease you through these missteps or laugh along with you about your mistake.
    As for the above article, the generalization of the thumbs up sign in the middle east- well I live in a Middle eastern country, and it means the thumbs up good sign! Don’t generalize unless you are certain your comments can be backed up! Here the f u sign is still the middle finger but delivered in a different way, without showing the back of the hand the way we do it. Yes, I have been on the receiving end of both! Here I also shout to a server from across the room- I would probably get kicked out of a restaurant for that at home (or at least have my food spit in!) but here, it is the cultural norm.
    I think when discussing this too, we need to keep in mind that every story always has another side- so did someone get fired for that reason and that reason only, or was this the final straw?


    1. I agree. I live in Egypt and I use thumbs up all the time and I see Egyptians use it as well to mean good. I was horrified to think I was making a big mistake reading that it means the opposite in “the Middle East”. I started investigating and yes, in SOME countries that’s what it means but not in Egypt and a few others.


  10. I think the worst thing I ever did was to inadvertently steal someone’s prayer rug and use it as a bathroom mat while in Kurdistan. I had gone into the supply closet to get something and saw a small rug. I thought it was left over from last year’s pageant, so I took it needing a small rug for my bathroom. Shortly after, the supervisor came to me and asked if I could please return Mr. [the Bangla Deshi custodian]’s prayer rug. That’s when I realized to my horror that the picture of “a building” on the rug was probably Mecca. I could not apologize profusely enough to the custodian, and was grateful that I was not working in a country where the people were not as forgiving.


  11. GREAT article! I’m sure I will commit one or more in my lifetime! I hope none too offensive though, don’t want to spend anytime behind bars in any country!


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