Bridging the Cultural Gap

Posted by on Nov 18, 2015 in Production | One Comment
Drew Janes films Asha with a Canon EOS C100, 16-35 Lens
Relentless, Inc. CEO and Owner, Drew Janes films “Asha” in Tanzania for Awana in front of a house that is being built for her.


We use the name, “Asha” instead of her real name as gender-based violence remains a challenge for Tanzania and some harmful traditional practices perpetuate discrimination against women and children. She avoids eye contact through most of our visit. Occasionally, she’ll look up unexpectedly and we’ll catch just a glimpse, such as the lucky shot above captured over Drew’s shoulder. In her culture, eye contact can be seen as a sign of aggression. Having to shift how we shoot our video and film productions so they still make sense to western audiences, while respecting the people that we find ourselves with, is interesting. It’s always a challenge, and one that we gladly accept and enjoy.

  • In parts of Asia, smiling around strangers can be considered a sign of embarrassment. In other areas, it can be considered a sign of dishonesty.
  • In India, you are expected to refuse your host’s first offer of food or drink. Winking or whistling in public is also frowned upon.
  • In Afghanistan and most of the Muslim world, it is considered unclean to eat or touch food with your left hand.
  • In Turkey, propping your feet up where they are pointed towards another individual is an insult.
  • In Vietnam, avoid touching anyone’s head or shoulders and don’t pass objects over a person’s head.

With so many regional and cultural taboos, what are some ways you can ingratiate yourself and your productions with your hosts?

Learn local greetings

Simple phrases such as “Hello”, “Yes/No”, and “Please/Thank You” don’t just aid in verbal communication; they help establish that you are there to learn and participate. Practicing and using them also gets you to slow down and familiarize yourself and them before you jump into filming. People may be excited to see you and/or curious about what you do. Your patience will be rewarded with a better experience, better images, and better stories.

Present yourself appropriately

Conservative clothing is usually the safer option, especially in deeply devout areas. As mentioned above, a simple gesture can lead to embarrassment. You definitely don’t want to give a “thumbs up” in Thailand or Turkey! So err on the side of caution with humble and appreciative body language and gestures. Some have found that sitting lower than your subject can get them to open up more!

Be a person first

We’re videographers, filmmakers, and storytellers. But we’re people FIRST. It could be a great shot, but it may also be that person’s misery. They aren’t paid talent, they’re people and this is but a small moment of their life. Bad things happen and horrible conditions occur, but we’re here to share those stories, not profit from them.

There are few experiences as exciting and as grounding as immersing yourself in a new land and new peoples. Everyone has stories to share, but we are all a part of the biggest story; and we get to share it with each other.


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