Air Kisses, Head Nods and Fist Bumps: Acknowledging Cultural Differences in Our Communities

In some cultures, “air kissing” both cheeks is the expected greeting, even if meeting for the first time. In others, extending a left hand to shake is considered highly offensive. Knowing a little about the cultural differences in our communities can help avoid unintentional slights and aggressions and can make living in a diverse community enjoyable—and maybe a little enlightening!

Family Units

What a “family” is can differ significantly from one culture to another. The definition of “family” can have a significant impact on whom you might find living in one household. In many cultures, it is common for several generations of a family to live in the same home, no matter how “cozy” it may be.

A home in which multiple generations live together can sometimes be a source of friction in a community. Some neighbors may assume that, with so many living in one home, “something is going on in there.”  Some people assume that having a number of family members live together means more noise, more traffic, more utility usage, etc. That is not always the case. Avoiding assumptions based on cultural differences or lack of cultural knowledge is the first step in avoiding conflicts.

Aroma vs. Stench

For those who live in a multifamily community – especially condominiums and apartments – it’s difficult to miss a blending of the aromas of the various foods different cultures enjoy. Just as one person’s trash is another’s treasure, one person’s “aroma” may be another’s “stench.” Managers and board members often get complaints about what may literally be foreign to a Western European palate. Walk the halls of a diverse housing community, and you might smell kimchi from one home, hákarl (fermented shark) from another. Sauerkraut and sardines can certainly be “aromatic.” Even the hallowed lutefisk has a certain “perfume.” Before wrinkling your nose at the new smells, consider tasting the foods or learning why they are important to the people cooking them. Food can indeed be a bridge between many lands.


Pointing at someone else is an insult in most parts of the world, but in some places, it is often used simply as a reference. The most common gesture in the world is a nod, but even that can mean different things in different cultures. Simply pointing to someone who has raised her hand during a meeting can lead to discord at a meeting, when the intended effect was to ensure everyone was heard. Taking the time to learn a little about the cultures of those living in the community shows respect for the person and the culture. Treating an owner with respect will likely be met with a respectful response rather than anger or incivility.

Eye Contact

In some cultures, avoiding eye contact can be interpreted as a sign of deception or disrespect. However, in others, looking someone in the eye is offensive. In some cases, men can look each other in the eye without fear of offending, but a woman cannot expect the same reaction if she looks a man in the eye. In some cultures, women are forbidden from looking men in the eye.

If a neighbor isn’t aware of cultural differences, she might take offense at someone who does not look her in the eye, finding it disrespectful and “not very neighborly.”  Those feelings of disrespect can take a nasty turn into claims of discrimination if not addressed promptly and appropriately. Claims of discrimination will cause further discord and animosity between those of different cultural backgrounds.

Understanding the effects of cultural differences is an important part of living in a community. Residents’ cultural backgrounds can give managers, board members and neighbors insight into the reasoning behind their habits and behaviors. Once you have knowledge of the various ways culture can impact how people act, you can help avoid conflicts, or at least resolve them more effectively.

If you want to know more about a neighbor’s culture, ask—respectfully. Consider hosting a potluck (how quintessentially Minnesotan!) so neighbors can taste those flavors from around the world. Tater Tot Hotdish might even be a new delicacy for one of your neighbors—or you might discover it is very similar to a dish in their native land that simply goes by a different name.

Seeking out knowledge about our differences will undoubtedly lead to discoveries of similarities and will help us all understand each other better.