Cultural mishaps of a mass spectrometrist

At the time of writing this blog it’s only a couple of weeks until I head out on a business trip to China and Japan. Although I used to travel a bit when I was younger, it doesn’t happen so much these days, especially in the last three years (for the unmentionable reason). But I always used to relish travel, particularly when it was to either somewhere exotic or else somewhere I’d not ever travel to on vacation.

I hear people say that in this modern era of easy, cheap travel and constant social media that the world is becoming a smaller place with less distinct cultural differences from region to region. But that’s in contrast to my own experiences, where I have always found the differences interesting, if sometimes a challenge. In this blog I’ll share a few of my own experiences, most of which revolve around my own lack of cultural awareness – my excuse being that many of these events happened before I had a mobile phone, let alone 24/7 access to the internet.

Just remind me… where is it that it’s rude to blow your nose at a table…?

I’ll start with a misjudged event in India. As part of a trip to various labs in the country I was visiting a prestigious lab to help an installation engineer from my country who was already on site. I knew he’d worked hard for a few weeks so I decided to buy him some duty free whisky– these were the days when “duty free” was a phrase to prick up the ears of any Brit – the alcohol in particular being far cheaper than on the high street. The lab I went to had airport-style security, meaning I was required to unpack my bag onto a conveyor belt for screening.

But to my utter shame, as the bottle of whisky was placed on the belt, the security guard said to me “Sir, this is Ahmedabad, we are a dry state”. I should have done my research, but at this point was such a regular traveler that I’d become very blasé about it. I apologized profusely for causing offence, and for having zero local cultural awareness. The guard took away the whisky and I went off to the lab red-faced and embarrassed.

The IIT Gandhinagar campus in Ahmedabad region, not reknown for high alcohol consumption

Several hours later when I left the lab, I tried to keep my head as low as possible walking back through the security area, but to my surprise the guard dashed straight over to me. He didn’t say a word as he handed me back my whisky. I squashed it into by bag and avoided eye contact with anyone until I was out of the building.

For Westerners who are regular travelers, Japan is one of the easiest places to make a cultural misstep. I’ll keep most of mine to myself, but will share one experience. About 20 years ago, my colleague Danny and I were doing a sales tour of Japanese labs and were taken by our local agent to a semiconductor company to discuss the lateness of an instrument that this company had bought from us. Naturally, we were dressed very smartly, had a plentiful supply of business cards, and knew the bowing etiquette. What we weren’t ready for was the apology.

After the usual introductions, our local agent turned to Danny and I, asking us to explain to the assembled team of senior figures why the instrument was late. I took the bullet, bowed as low as possible, then explained how sorry we were, how personally disappointed we were, and how hard we would work to make things right. I probably went on for some time. Once I finished, the local dealer turned to me, saying “now we wait until the boss accepts our apology”.

So, we waited. Everyone except the big boss stared down at their feet, looking glum. This went on for what seemed like a long time, but was probably two or three minutes. And then I noticed Danny was suppressing a giggle, he was going gradually red faced, not through lack of respect but because of the awkwardness of the whole situation. I didn’t dare look at him in case I started. If we’d both burst out laughing, we’d probably have caused an international incident. Another minute went by, and then finally the boss spoke, and our dealer confirmed that the apology was accepted. We came very close to causing extreme offence, but disaster was averted.

The exchange of business cards in Japan can be a formal procedure

Staying East, another memory I have is of a sales trip to Penang in Malaysia. I’d been instructed by my local sales agent to dress smartly so was in my best black suit and somber tie. For the couple of days I was there I stayed in an upmarket hotel by the beach, the kind of place where every guest is in beach shorts or a bikini. I realized just how out of place I looked when I was asked, twice in a few minutes, for directions to parts of the hotel. It dawned on me that I looked exactly like the hotel staff. I decided there and then that if anyone else asked for directions I’d give them a convincing answer then put my hand out for a tip.

The Shangri-La hotel n Penang, Malaysia. I recommend casual attire, leave the suit and tie at home

One big cultural difference I’ve seen when travelling is the differing attitudes to working hours, and how intense those hours are. My impression (personal opinion, not backed up by fact!) is that most cultures are equally productive, it’s just that some cram it into as short a time as possible in order to get away from work, and some have a more leisurely working day. When undertaking engineering work at a lab in Northern Europe, I was gently admonished for working late in the evening. When I questioned this, I was told “by working really late, you’re sending the message that you’re not that good at your job”. So I got in the habit of finishing on time, which pretty much everyone else did.

My next trip after that was to install an instrument in the Washington DC area of the US. This particular installation was not going well, so I was forced to stay late, irrespective of what the local scientists might think. Fortunately, I was mostly left alone, and each evening was able to make good progress without being disturbed. But anyone who has worked alone into the night will know, you do get into a zone, and get very used to the silence.

One evening I was working on the innards of the instrument, crouched down, it would have been about 11pm, possibly later. There was a sudden hearty cry of “Hey Steve, you’re working late!”, as one of the leading scientists (also called Steve) came into the lab. It made me jump so much that I cracked my head on the magnet, nearly passing out. Steve was very sympathetic (as he tried not to laugh).

The Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, part of the Carnegie Institute of Washington

China is another place I’ve found it easy to make a faux pas or two. One memory that makes me blush was attending a banquet with new customers. Like all such banquets it was initially formal but once the Moutai (Chinese hard liquor) was flowing, the formality soon went. Part way through the meal as I finished the spicy ribs I carefully washed my fingers in the bowl of warm water provided… only for a hush to descend on the table and my host to ask me why I put my fingers in the soup. I recall he asked if it was a UK custom that he wasn’t aware of. At least we were all able to laugh about it, my colleague Andrew who was with me at the time ensured everyone else at the company had a good laugh about it too.

Slurping your soup: okay. Washing your fingers in your soup: NOT okay

If you have a comment about this post, or have your own cultural experiences or mishaps, please let me know (

Steve Guilfoyle

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Steve Guilfoyle

Steve is Sales and Marketing Manager at Isotopx. Most of his career he has worked in isotope ratio mass spectrometry, in engineering and application science as well as sales and marketing