Coups and Faux Pas
To open an intercultural training program and begin a discussion of how cultural differences
affect us in work or daily life
This activity is for groups starting to learn about working or doing business across cultures. It
requires some experience abroad (for work or vacation) or experience interacting with people
of other cultures. Group members should not be afraid to share personal experiences. Coups
and Faux Pas can be used even if most of the people in the group already know one another
or are an intact work group. If the group is larger than 16, subdivide it into smaller groups for
introductions there.
Allow 5 minutes to set up the activity and introduce yourself. Then allow 1½ to 2 minutes
per person, plus a few minutes to debrief.
Handout 1: “66 Ways We Differ” for each participant
Include the handout in the course documentation or put one at each person’s place before the
start of the program.
Tell the participants that you are all going to introduce yourselves to one another in a special
way by sharing
cultural faux pas—a mistake made abroad or when working with people of another
cultural coup—something that turned out well when you respected another’s cultural
Tell them that scanning the handout “66 Ways We Differ” might help them think of an
Demonstrate what you mean by introducing yourself with BOTH a coup and a faux pas. Here
are examples I have used in the past:
Faux pas: I was leaving a restaurant on a winter’s evening in Northern Germany when a
man appeared at the door roundly cursing me. I asked my companion what was wrong.
He told me that I had failed to close the door and that I often failed to close doors.
(Accustomed to automatic doors in public buildings and used to open spaces and “open-
door policies” in the United States, I failed to observe that Germans have more doors and
close them for privacy and quiet more often than Americans do.)
Coup: The flight attendant on a recent trip asked what we would like for dinner. The man
next to me asked that his meal be kept for him until 6:00 p.m. I realized that the man was
probably a Muslim fasting for the season of Ramadan, so I asked the flight attendant to
hold my meal until the same time. I was rewarded with a very interesting conversation
about what it felt like to be a Muslim living abroad and the many misunderstandings and
prejudices that this man had experienced living in my country. (During Ramadan, people
fast by abstaining from food, drink, and smoking until sunset. It would have been very
impolite for me to eat right next to him while he was fasting.)
Give participants a couple of moments to prepare. Remind them that they need only share
either a coup or a faux pas. Then go around the room and allow each person to introduce
him- or herself.
Transition into the next part of the program by telling the group that when it comes to
culture, often “We don’t know what we don’t know,” and that we frequently learn only by
making mistakes. Tie this into the theme of the course: “It is the purpose of the course to
learn how to avoid making tragic mistakes when dealing with people different from ourselves
and to learn how to turn our mistakes into successes.”
Note: The handout can be used for later discussion. You might ask the participants to form
small groups to discuss one or more of the items on the list and attempt to identify the vari-
ous kinds of differences they experience in life or work.

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