In the Suitcase: Cultural Etiquette

I have to give credit to my fellow travel-addict and friend Christie, who posted this article from Yahoo! Travel entitled “World’s Worst Cultural Mistakes” on her Facebook page. It is a great summary of a handful of cultural offenses around the globe, though I think some of them may be arguable. For example: blowing your nose in public should be offensive in ALL countries, particularly at the dinner table. I’m not sure where in the world it is a good thing to blow your nose at the table. Also “road rage” is particularly acceptable anywhere, I’m sure. Apparently “talking over dinner” is a cultural no-no in China. However, having sat through many years of my dad’s formal dinners with Chinese diplomats and United Nations colleagues, I assure you that once the Chinese wine is poured, there is absolutely no silence at the table. Still, this is a good background and guide to showing a little class and etiquette in foreign countries, and to prevent being squelched into the “ugly American” stereotype.


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One response to “In the Suitcase: Cultural Etiquette

  1. Josh

    In Japan especially, avoid blowing your nose at the dinner table. It’s equivalent to urinating all over everyone. In 2000, I was a summer associate doing a rotation in the Tokyo office and went to dinner with a college friend and his relatives visiting from Staten Island. His poor sister had a bad cold and blew her nose all over the hot towel meant for washing our hands. You could see that the waitresses were totally aghast, but Japanese decorum prevented them from saying anything.

    Anywhere in east Asia, never stick your chopsticks upright into a rice bowl. Apparently this is done for the dead and is considered very bad luck.

    In the Arab world, never ramble on and on about how much you like anything that’s in your host’s possession, or they will be obliged to offer it to you. You will doubly offend if you take it. Note: this may also be true of elderly Jews, as seen in the Seinfeld episode “The Pen”.

    In China, when dining with a business host on their tab, never finish all of your food. It would suggest that you have not been adequately fed and provide some embarrassment for everyone involved.

    In Thailand and in other devout Buddhist countries, it’s considered very rude to show the soles of your feet to another person, or to an image of the Buddha. Bare feet are apparently a sign of disrespect.

    In West Africa, the top of the head is considered sacred and it’s a tremendous affront to touch it. This is especially true for a child.

    In South and Southeast Asia, it’s perfectly normal for straight men to walk around hand-in-hand and it’s a sign of friendly affection as usual as a slap on the back. In any Anglo culture, you’d pretty much have to want people to think you’re gay.

    In most of Asia, never eat or offer or receive anything with your left hand. Prior to the advent of the modern, Western throne toilet and double-ply cotton toilet paper, the left hand was used for wiping your butt. Apparently enough people still do that that it’s considered pretty gross. Somehow, offering an object with both hands is perfectly acceptable.

    Never point out to Greek people that their cucumber-yogurt-dill mix called Tzatziki is pretty much the same thing as Turkish Jajik. They will assure you that it is not, and that the Turks stole the dish and use inferior yogurt.

    And finally, on the topic of food-as-politics, be wary of describing falafel as an Israeli food to an Arab. Falafel is in fact Israel’s national snack (having thankfully replaced Wiener Schnitzel back in the 1980s), but the PLO was so angry when the Knesset declared that fact that the protested at the United Nations.

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