On the Job

Tips to Navigating Different Cultures On Board

1 January 2021 By Kylie O'Brien
bouquet of colorful flowers

Kylie O’Brien has worked on some of the world’s most magnificent vessels with amazing people for more than 13 years. A graduate of The Australian College of Applied Psychology, she is the author of Crew Wanted, The Stewardess Bible, The Chief Stewardess Bible, The Inside Job, and has been a monthly contributor to Dockwalk magazine for more than five years.

Famous screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur said that, “Cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity.” So as a superyacht stewardess, what is the best way to navigate your way around so many different cultures, both within the crew and the guests?

Cultural sensitivity refers to the acknowledgement of differences, being aware of similarities, and the acceptance of another’s culture without judgment. It might be worth noting that each person’s experiences color their perspectives — take me, for example. I write as a woman and an Australian. In the superyacht world, we work with and for many people from various cultures and it goes without saying that knowledge of different cultures can help the superyacht stew to achieve excellence in service. Cultural sensitivity can also help to build and maintain strong interpersonal working relationships.

However, culture is an elusive concept that includes a set of codes, rules, beliefs, and practices that orientates, educates, and motivates individuals towards a range of socially accepted behaviors.

So, what happens when an American guest boasts about shooting hundreds of animals and a South African deckhand overhears this conversation (who incidentally is leading a conservation movement in South Africa)? Or when an English stewardess gives her Ukrainian friend and colleague 30 fresh flowers for her birthday?

Flower Faux Pas

Giving flowers to a Ukrainian woman on her birthday is an innocent faux pas; however, it’s one that can result in unintended negative emotions. The well-intended crewmember simply thought it would be nice to give her a fresh, vibrant bouquet of 30 flowers and foliage as a part of her gift. But unbeknown to the crewmember, giving an even number of flowers is only reserved for funerals. While we thought the yellow flowers added to the overall freshness and fun of the bouquet, she informed us that yellow is considered the color of separation.

This particular stewardess was quite superstitious, as many Ukrainians are. So, to translate this birthday disaster, though we thought she’d love her gift, she took it as an insult and that we wanted her off the yacht. Regrettably, she vented her distress at her English friend who handed her the flowers, resulting in their friendship dissolving.

As the chief stewardess on board at the time, I made sure that there was always an uneven number of flowers in every bouquet whenever we had a Ukrainian on board.

Shooting Animals

The incident of the South African deckhand overhearing a guest boasting about the shooting of animals was another sensitive situation. My attention was immediately drawn to the deckhand and he was removed from his duties on deck that night. Obviously, it is not the crewmember’s place to correct the guest’s behavior. However, it was the officer’s place to take care of his deckhand and remove him from a painful situation.

Saudi Arabia

This is a country that is deeply religious and conservative with many traditions dating back centuries. While superyacht crew are informed of many dos and don’ts in Saudi Arabia, here’s a good refresher: while living in Dubai, for example, always dress appropriately, do not hold hands in public if you are dating, and avoid being drunk and disorderly at all costs. While these may be straightforward cultural differences, there are other cultural deviations that many western women may not know.

In general, the interior department is dominated by female stewardesses, with a handful of male stewards. Most service is generally reserved for senior crew such as the chief stewardess. Be mindful of your eye contact, because as a woman, you aren’t supposed to look directly at a man, so I would suggest looking slightly below the eyes. In addition, be mindful of your hand gestures and avoid pointing as this is considered rude. Avoid discussing religion, politics, and family structure (such as marrying your cousin), which can be a tricky situation if the guest or main principle is trying to bait you into an awkward discussion. If you find yourself in this situation, remember to be as neutral as possible. Say things like, “Oh, I must do more research on the subject,” or “I do not know of such things,” even if you are thoroughly read up on cultural norms and current affairs.

The United States

The USA is extremely culturally diverse, and you may think that everything goes here. But that is not always the case. In contrast to the United Arab Emirates, it is considered evasive and rude not to look someone in the eye when speaking to them. Furthermore, encroaching on someone’s personal space such as standing within an arm’s length to the guest is considered rude. While I am quite confident that most superyacht crew are able to sense and observe personal space, there are a few occasions when an overzealous junior is not aware of this standard American norm.

The world is full of amazing cultural differences and the list is simply too vast to cover in one article. That’s why it’s important to know that there is no right or wrong, or better or worse cultures; there are simply differences.

This column originally ran in the January 2021 issue of Dockwalk.


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