Shaking hands

The incident

This is the first day of my voluntarist internship and I am entering a classroom where some of the unattended refugees that are cared for in the project are waiting.  The first person, who seems to me somewhat like the class clown, approaches me, shakes my hand, talks to me and is already quite physical with me and coming really close.  Most of the other young males in the room follow his lead.  They come over to me, shake my hand, laugh and conduct small talk.  One of the people in the room looks rather timid so I go over to introduce myself and reach out with my right hand to greet him and shake his hand.  He does not shake my hand but twists his arm and only offers me his forearm to shake.  I am so shocked that he rejects my simple gesture of saying hello, especially since all the others had come up and shook my hand.  I was only following their lead when greeting this young man.  How disrespectful!

The others try to explain, “He does not touch women,” But they also laugh at him.

I don’t even know if they are making fun of me or of him?  I feel quite shaken, irritated and puzzled, but I do not want to make too much out of it so I just continue with small talk.  Nevertheless, I am really mad.  Not only does he not accept my gesture of outreach, but he devalues me, because I am a woman.

Later on while reflecting on the situation I am still thrown and shocked, but I am also a little surprised by myself.  Why had I been so irritated by that situation and was it not to be expected? And why did I not put more thought into how to approach the refugees present?


1. Identities of the actors in the situation

The narrator

The narrator is a psychologist in training, female, from Munich and studying in Vienna. She is 21 years old and was raised in an academic and liberal-minded family (3 siblings), her parents being preschool teachers.  Her parents have been active in refugee aid for a long time.  As a teenager, the narrator was very active politically and she was a member of the green youth and engaged in feminist and antifascist issues. Nowadays she is no longer active in organised political situations but still considers herself a political person.  She is oriented towards getting to know different countries and people from diverse backgrounds.  She considers herself as a person who helps which is important to her.  She is now actively involved in refugee aid herself.  She was brought up in a Christian setting but quit church.  She reports having been a victim of sexual harassment many times which contributed to what she calls a “hatred of men”.

Person causing the shock

The person who caused the shock is an unattended male refugee from Somalia, who is between 16-17 years old.  He is a practicing and devout Muslim.  The narrator describes him as very timid and shy looking.  He had not been in Austria for too long.

Other Teenagers present

10 other male unattended refugees were present when the shock happened and contributed to how the situation unfolded.  They were around the ages of 16 to 18 and from different countries (mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq).

All refugees attended to by the project are male and under 18 years old and they have come to Austria as unattended minors. They live in accommodations in the outskirts of Vienna, not near the centre where the project is located.  The refugees come from very different backgrounds (social, national, religious etc.).

While the narrator is not that much older than the person causing the shock, most of the characteristics of their social identities drive them apart: their genders, their orientation towards religion, the type of religion they were brought up in, the area of the world they were brought up in and most centrally the teenager’s experience of having to flee his country and coming to Austria on his own.

2. Context of the situation

The incident took place in an NGO centre in a classroom that was used by the project. The centre was located in a traditional working-class district in the outskirts of Vienna.

The narrator entered the room with a couple of refugees present.  It was her first day on the job and she had received some preliminary information beforehand, but no real training or advice on how to act.  None of the other staff were present in the classroom when she entered.  The narrator felt a little unsure and ill-prepared.  At the same time she knew that she would be of interest to the teenagers, being a young, blonde female, when most of the other staff were considerably older and the refugees were mostly living in all-male accommodations.

It was very loud in the room and very chaotic. Teenagers seemed to be swarming around.

Additionally, it should be noted that the narrator did not know what the gesture specifically meant, she only knew that it was performed due to the fact that she was a woman and thought it to by a symbol of insulting women.

3. Emotional reaction

Shocked and angry.  I felt disrespected and I don’t quite know how to proceed with the situation.  Yet I just carry on and do not express my anger. The other youths present are laughing and I do not know what about so I feel insecure.

Reflecting on the situation, I still feel devalued and do not accept the action.  I am also puzzled at my own naïveté and my being thoughtless.

4. Representations, values, norms, ideas, prejudice: The frame of references of the person who experienced the shock

All people are equal, regardless of their background or gender, and to be treated with respect. All people being equal leads up to all people being treated equally. Differential treatment is a sign of devaluation or discrimination, especially if it takes place along the lines of gender difference.

  • Respect is shown by treating others as equals, indicated by using the same gestures to greet each human being.
  • Greeting procedures start off interactions between two people, signifying the willingness of both parties to make contact. Within greeting rituals social positions are determined.  One need only think about men kissing women’s hands instead of shaking them as they would have done with their male peers. The form of greeting not only points to the social relationship between the two people but also marks their personal proximity or distance (friends, colleagues, superiors etc.).  Shaking somebody’s hand signifies a meeting between two people at the same level who are not in especially close personal contact.
  • By not following the proposed form of greeting, the refugee denied the type of contact and social relation that was advanced by the narrator. Thereby depriving a mutual exchange but also negating the form of respect that goes along with shaking someone’s hand.  Not taking the narrator’s hand stands for rejecting her offer of establishing contact, of the type of contact that was to come and of how their relationship was to be conceived.
  • Gender equity: The situation would not have arisen if the narrator was a man. Being devalued for being a woman threatened the narrator’s self-image as a confident, autonomous female.
  • Moreover, because of the refugee’s actions the narrator felt pressured to defend her (liberal) ways against a foreigner. The incident placed her in the position as “German / Austrian” and distinct from the refugees, having to enforce her vision of equality, thereby challenging her non-culturalist view on values of equality.  The narrator found it important to add that there is also gender inequality in Austria.

Treating foreigners with respect is a value the narrator adheres to.  This applies to her in the same way as it does to refugees coming to Austria – whom she expects to treat her with respect.

  • At the same time, treating foreigners with respect entails adapting to context-specific values and codes of conduct. While she is less irritated by differential treatment of men and women in countries she travels to because it pertains to the country’s history or way of viewing the world, she does not accept a transferral of these practices to an Austrian context, not even from refugees (forced type of migration). This points to questions of whose ideas are legitimately enforced within a social (cultural) context: difference between locals and guests.
  • Living in a global context people do have notions of how life is in different regions. Especially since the refugees have migrated the narrator expects them to know about different values and codes of conduct in a Western country and be familiar with acceptable forms of greeting.

Self-image as person, who helps:

  • The narrator’s vision of herself was threatened since being someone who helps is tied to the expectation of receiving courtesy and gratitude. Refugees who are aided should be thankful in return. The narrator draws esteem from this appreciation.  The person causing the shock by not greeting her the way she envisioned withdraw mutual benefit from the situation, thereby he did not demonstrate appreciation for her working to help refugees.
  • Helping stands for caring and mothering but also for exercising control.
  • Helping is associated with receiving benefits: feeling as a morally good person, being appreciated etc.

The aiding person usually creates the conditions the encounters take place in while the refugees are thought of as passive receivers of help.  The person causing the shock overturned the typical format of encounters by his response of rejecting the proposed form of greeting. 

5. What image emerges from the analysis of point 4 for the other group (neutral slightly negative, very negative, "stigmatized", positive, very positive, real, unreal) etc?

The refugee is pictured as

  • Disrespectful
  • Arrogant, because he thinks he can define the situation.
  • A backwardly thinking male who envisions himself to be superior to women.
6. Representations, values, norms, prejudice: The frame of references of the person or group that is causing the shock / that caused the shock in the narrator

The refugee honours specific rules of social organisation and interaction that he holds dear.

  • Especially in his situation of having fled his country of origin and being in Austria on his own, he holds on to internalised codes of conduct. When everything else is falling apart, he turns to routines that are familiar to him.  It can be speculated that he was overwhelmed by the situation and did not know how to act and fell back on this code.
  • Not to touch women is a norm and he does not wish to break obedience to social norms even in unfamiliar contexts.
  • This points to an orientation towards universal rules rather than a preference to adapting actions in a context-specific way.

Setting boundaries:

  • Especially since the other refugees were behaving differently, he wanted to set himself apart, making a connection not with the other refugees or the narrator but rather keeping a connection to his own background.
  • Maybe this represented a form of agency, not following external rules, forms of actions suggested to him by representatives of the project. Thereby he was counteracting notions of passive refugees he might have been confronted with.
  • The boundaries he set also refer to the type of bodily contact that is acceptable to him – they might relate to bodily contact being regulated along the lines of gender or age difference or even proximity of acquaintance.

An unequal treatment of men and women does not mean devaluation.  Not to touch women rather represents a sign of respect towards the other gender.  Maybe it is also a sign of respect towards one’s elders since the narrator was older than the refugee.

7. Does the situation highlight any problem concerning the professional practice, or in general about the respect of cultural differences in intercultural situations?

Conflicting value systems and codes of conduct

Professionals working in transcultural contexts may experience conflicts between their own values and the value systems of the persons they attend to.  These conflicts likely manifest in concrete interactive exchanges.  Yet they often times remain implicit since they are not addressed verbally but expressed through non-verbal communication.  The question of how to deal with situations in which value systems and codes of conduct collide lies at the heart of reflecting upon professional work in transcultural settings.  Drawing on this example it seems important to address the concrete interactive incident that caused a shock making explicit the type of action that triggered negative emotions. As evidenced, it often remains unclear what a gesture really stands for and what is intended by the one performing it. The incident points to the importance of non-verbal communication for acknowledging experiences of shock and negotiating practices that accommodate the differing value systems and codes of conduct.

Training and guiding volunteers

Volunteers, but also many professionals, working with refugees are not always properly trained and instructed before they start to work.  They need to be advised not only on the content of their work, but also on social elements accompanying it – i.e. regarding soft skills, communication and techniques of reflecting on social encounters.  Moreover, a form of guidance should be put in place, i.e. by being mentored through the process or making supervision available, especially where volunteers should explore questions of motives and expectations.  Another important dimension is to think along the lines of stereotypical representations of refugees, how these images might inform volunteer practice and how refugees can be supported in exerting agency.  One idea might be to create opportunities for refugees to engage with the civil society they fled to, aside from being recipients of aid, to facilitate an exploration of differing value systems, ideas and codes of conduct.