Be careful not to insult people from other cultures with the words you use in business

Tony, You are so FAT!

I could have been insulted by my guide’s words. I admit I was initially taken back at being called to my face – You are so FAT – but luckily I understood understood what he “meant to say”.

I was on a bike-riding tour around beautiful Bali – and my diminutive guide called me FAT.

TB  cut off  shirt

He was proud of his command of English – but I gave him a little tip to use words other than FAT – and to be aware that many Westerners don’t like being called FAT.

Friends from many different Asian backgrounds had explained to me that being “fat” rather than “thin” was a sign that you had plenty of money for food.


Maybe it is a view with older generations, but skinniness was often seen as a sign of not having money for food. Being Fat was often seen as attractive and a compliment.

My thin guide had told me: Tony you are so fat. I wish I was FAT like you. .

I understand that FAT can be a good thing – as in: I got a fat cheque OR That’s a fat bass sound.

I suggested our guide say You are so BIG (or even better BIG and STRONG) – rather than FAT.

I suggested that he not call Western women big. 


I suggest to you that you avoid commenting on physical attributes all together. Even if you see it as a compliment – like being tall. Even tall people may not like being called tall – they may have stood out in their younger years by being tall and may not like people commenting on it.


Also, I am not “big and strong” (especially by Australian standards) – I guess to my skinny guide, I appeared big and “FAT”.

I guess the same would apply “in reverse” – a “Westerner” thinking they are complimenting a person by telling them they are “skinny” or “thin” when being skinny is NOT seen as a good thing.

I understand that attitudes are changing over time with younger generations around the world seeing being thin as a compliment rather than an insult!

TB Social Media KLT

My point is: different cultures have different attitudes to body size and age.

Also, words have different connotations. Another example, was where a person learning English wanted to say: I want to be friends/friendly with you – but wrote I want to be intimate with you (which has a different connotation)

Here’s are two links to more on the problem of words having different connotations and the importance in business communication of having someone who understand the local culture to check and advise on the words used.

1.I want to be intimate with you

2. the danger of “false friends”

Now, the danger of insulting people also applies to English speakers communicating with people from other backgrounds.

international-communication TB

I am experienced in cross-cultural communication. I learn so much from the people I help – yet I once had to quickly correct potential “damage” when I gave what I thought was a compliment to a client from a Chinese background. I’ll share that in a future post.

If you have any work colleagues from different language backgrounds who could benefit from my coaching, please contact me. I get great results in identifying the potential “dangers” and helping speakers avoid the problems.

I have plenty of experience in helping speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, French, German, Middle Eastern). I’ve even helped Brits and Americans and Canadians avoid embarrassment when presenting to Australian audiences.

word nerd CU

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These days, lots of people and organisations need help with how to COPE with too much work, too much information, too many meetings, delivering difficult news, business writing, effective e-mail, e-mail overload, cross-cultural communication, better social media engagement etc. I like to help people COPE.



One thought on “Be careful not to insult people from other cultures with the words you use in business

  1. Pingback: Be careful not to insult business people from other cultures with comments you mean as compliments | Choose the Right Words

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