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Communication & Cultural faux pas.

Picture by Ajay -

A few days ago, I was reading hotels reviews on TripAdvisor. A guest from France commented that he had an excellent stay but found the hotel’s restaurants overpriced and had therefore eaten out the entire week. The hotel’s managing director wrote back, in French, and thanked him for his review. He also wrote : “Vous n’avez pas essayé nos restaurants. C’est une honte.”


Now your curious self is wondering: What does that mean? What did he do wrong?

Well, what he did is, on paper, very good. He heard the feedback from the client (listening skills), took the time to respond in a civil manner (reactivity), addressed the concerns in the message (customer centricity), signed the message with his name and job title (ownership) and he even wrote his response in the language of his client (proximity with the audience). All of it shows good communication skills.

So, what happened?

All his efforts were ruined because of one word. My guess is he wanted to say ‘It’s a shame you haven’t tried our restaurants’.

“C’est une honte”, indeed means “It’s a shame”, but in French it is understood as “shameful”. He might as well have written “You haven’t tried our restaurants, you should be ashamed of yourself”. It’s patronizing and it’s judgmental. You would never say that to a customer. What he missed in this situation is some cultural context.

Luckily for him and his business, TripAdvisor doesn’t allow comments on a response posted by an establishment. Imagine what offended readers - in France we tend to speak up when we disagree - would have written about this involuntary mishap... All his great efforts would have been discarded because of one unfortunate word.

It would however have started an interesting discussion on how one, with the best possible intentions, can seriously offend a customer, a potential client, and well, anybody really.

Cross-cultural misunderstandings are real and plentiful. In a business context, it is a minefield.

This article was first published on LinkedIn in April 2018

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