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Cultural crossed-wires: Comical or Cringe-worthy?

June 24, 2016 5 min read


Two empty massage tables overlooking lush tropical forest

If you have ever indulged in a massage treatment somewhere abroad, you will probably agree that it was different to what you’ve experienced back home. The further afield you go, the more likely cultural norms will differ, and those will filter through into your massage experience. Given the intimate nature of massage, this could easily result in some eyebrow-raising moments.

It’s hard not to walk into the experience with a few expectations. In the west we have become accustomed to a certain level of customer service, and to paying for it. It is viewed as a luxury for us, or an occasional necessity; those who spend their lives hunched over a desk will undoubtedly agree.

Different strokes for different folks

A massage in Morocco will be a completely different experience to a massage in England. In Morocco you can indulge in the famous ‘Hammam’, meaning steam room, similar to a Turkish bath house. In here, you will be soaped up, scrubbed down (completely naked of course, so leave your inhibitions at the door) and given a warm massage in a dark room. This is often carried out by a fully-trained professional, and you will not be expected to wear clothes at any point. It might give foreign females a little surprise – not to mention discomfort - if they find their therapist is a man. On top of this, the body parts that we in the UK usually consider out of bounds are certainly not in Morocco. Massaging the breasts, buttocks and stomach is considered completely normal.

A massage in Thailand will be a completely different experience to one in Vietnam. Asia is famed for its more diverse massage options. Thailand will give you options including the famous Thai massage, as well as foot massage (which rarely includes just feet, and often incorporates head, neck, arms and legs). You will often find that, unless you can speak Thai, you can ask for ‘foot only’ and find that your therapist will nod in agreement and then continue on with the original version of massage.  This is possibly down to language barrier, possibly down to a lack of training resulting in uncertainty about how to deliver what you want.

The ‘no frills’ Asian approach

There appears to be no apparent customer service training as we know it in the west, so you are better off just trying to appreciate whatever novelty is involved. You can also find what we commonly know as Swedish massage, although it is generally just called oil massage. Massage is a huge part of the culture in Thailand and you will find countless shops, often more than one on any given street, and pop up massage chairs in rows placed strategically in markets and popular tourist spots. It’s dirt cheap compared to what you will find at home, but there are rarely any frills. You will find basic equipment, rarely a professional massage table. I’ve never seen a single massage chair in Asia – although I would guess that you could find some in India, with their local head massage being the popular choice.

Since it seems to be such a large part of the economy, where most of the Thais seem to put in a lot more effort at learning the trade, it’s clear that the attitude hasn’t filtered through to the surrounding countries. For example, Laos and Cambodia are not really famed for their massage, and that is definitely reflected in the quality you receive there. Although you can find some places which are clearly making an effort to be as professional as their culture recognises, generally therapists will chat to each other loudly, have the TV blaring in the background, stop to answer their mobile phone if it rings, and disappear at intervals without a word. The techniques can leave a lot to be desired, and although the therapists have generally grasped the basic idea of effleurage, petrissage and tapotement, they might forget what they’ve done on one side and do something completely different on the other, which can be a little distracting – or disappointing!

Well there may not be any frills, but if it’s extras you’re looking for – Asia is your place! It seems that in most countries in Asia, westerners will have heard the term ‘happy ending’. It probably needs no explanation, but suffice to say, it’s not something that women commonly indulge in. Thailand is famous for it and Vietnam is extremely familiar with it too. I suspect that the reasons for its prevalence in these cultures is poverty, which makes it easy to feel sorry for the therapists offering such services. But this is a Western perspective and it’s hard to say how it is perceived among the locals. 

Expect the unexpected

Cultural crossed wires can result in some embarrassing – or amusing – occurrences. I can personally vouch for that! An experience I had in Vietnam was quite bizarre. I’d mistakenly walked into a ‘happy ending’ parlour aimed at local men, in a rural part of Hanoi in Vietnam. They looked a little surprised to see a young English woman in the reception, but I put that down to the location being rural, and only realised my mistake when I was on the table and the ‘therapist’ came in wearing an extremely short and tacky looking satin mini dress. Unfortunately, she didn’t speak any English at all – I considered leaving but as she’d already started and I didn’t want to offend her, I decided to stick it out, assuming that she’d realise I wasn’t looking for any extras.

I was again mistaken! She proceeded to pull the towel down while I was laying on my back, prodded my breast and then mimed rocking a baby. I wasn’t entirely sure what she was implying – or asking – but as she was chattering to me continuously in Vietnamese, I just shook my head and hoped she’d just get on with it. No such luck – her tone became more flirtatious, and I more uncomfortable. The massage itself was terrible – amateurish – and if it hadn’t been for the inability to communicate I would have walked out. At one point she accidentally smacked my hand against the wall. At the end of the massage, I wanted to get dressed, but she wasn’t leaving the cubicle and there wasn’t enough room for me to get dressed with her in there. She then gestured toward the bed, and I realised she was indicating that I should get dressed on top of it. Strange as this was, I really wasn’t sure how else I was going to get out of there so I reluctantly climbed onto the bed. It was totally unprofessional, but I was both bemused and slightly amused despite myself. I had to be really – the situation was comical!

I was struggling to get into my skinny jeans while sitting down so I awkwardly stood up on the couch; all the while, the woman was watching me intently. As I tugged my jeans up, she looked me up and down, winked and then slapped me across the bottom, before leaving the room. If that wasn’t a massage to remember, I don’t know what was. Obviously something like this would be unheard of in the UK – but different cultures mean different rules; sometimes no rules at all! It’s necessary to adapt the way you handle things, because your usual approach will likely fall on deaf ears.

What’s your story?

I’m sure there are many funny stories out there… and a few horror stories! It surely works in reverse at times too, when a client has expectations beyond what a therapist is willing to offer, or misunderstandings occur as to what is appropriate. Do you have any questionable experiences with massage? How did you handle it? Do you consider such cultural differences annoying, or perhaps even liberating? We’d love to hear your tales!



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