The authenticity of cultural blending and pitfalls of cultural theft

You’d be a laughing stock if you were to arrive on a business trip in Morocco sporting a scarlet fez, or turned up for a meeting in London in a bowler hat.

Your local counterparts would assume you were joking at best, disrespectful at worst, and culturally ignorant either way. Sometimes, though, the regional attire is genuinely practical, especially in hot countries. So when is cultural blending acceptable and not tourist theft to dress like a local?

Cultural blending in India

It’s better for Western men to opt for a summer suit in breathable fabric than turning up for meetings in long cotton pants and a kurta. Likewise, Western women would look completely wrong arriving for a meeting in a sari. India is one country, though, where it is appropriate to don the local attire for big social events, provided you can carry it off and, if you’re female, know how to wear a sari properly (and move around in it). Indians will see this as a gesture of friendship and respect for the occasion.

Cultural blending in Japan

In Japan, traditional business attire of suit and tie is fine for men. The question mark here is over facial hair. There has been controversy in Japan in the past, with some companies actually saying they will not hire men with beards. While plenty of Japanese men sport facial hair, it’s a good idea to keep it neat and trimmed if you want to blend in; a bushy ‘hipster’ beard may not go down well.

Some tourist spots and hotels offer women a chance to be dressed and made up as a geisha for a photo-opportunity, but this will win you little respect among Japanese colleagues.

Cultural blending in The Gulf

In the Gulf, Arab males wear the long, white dishdasha, with national and regional variations. But this is one part of the world where you should stick to Western attire. Locals have seen too many Westerners treat the dishdasha as fancy dress, or behave while wearing it in a disrespectful manner. Here, dressing like a local is regarded as cultural appropriation; a kind of theft, almost. Arrive for a meeting dressed in robes and you would look like a tourist, or a hippie.

Cultural blending in Latin America

In Latin America and Brazil, it’s more about what not to wear than what to wear. Local businesspeople opt for smart, fitted and chic and anything else gives the wrong impression. Casually ripped designer jeans from home make you look poor; baggy clothes make you look as though you can’t afford something that fits. Cargo pants, sandals in the workplace (for men) and shorts are an absolute ‘no’.

Brazilians do often wear strong colours but you should avoid pairing yellow and green, as these are the colours of the Brazilian flag and it’s seen as both disrespectful and downright odd. The exception to this rule is at a football match.

Cultural blending in the Philippines

Urban professional males in the Philippines wear the barong Tagalog, a translucent fitted shirt in breathable fabric, with a collar and light embroidery. Barongs are considered smart (if worn correctly) and practical, and you do not need to wear a tie. Once you have established a relationship with a counterpart, or had a chance to see what colleagues are wearing, it is quite acceptable to find a good local tailor and have your own barong made up. Stick to white or cream and wear it with dark coloured, tailored trousers, outside the waistband, never tucked in.

Cultural blending in Hawaii

There are many variations on the famous aloha men’s shirt, some of which are sported only by tourists. Men do wear the traditional Hawaiian shirt to work but in a good fabric, muted colours, with closed in shoes (such as loafers) and sometimes, a sports jacket. A ‘business formal’ dress code, though, means suit and tie. ‘Aloha attire’ on an invitation to a social event, like a wedding or party, means you are expected to wear the local style, regardless of whether you are from Hawaii. Stick to subdued colours and natural motifs (palm trees, flowers and so on). Avoid loud colours, cheap fabrics and patterns including gambling dice, bikini-clad women and cars; all of these are seen as bad taste.

About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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