Most of the information available regarding learning international etiquette is focused on business travelers, and for good reason. The last thing a business person wants to see is an important merger or brokered deal going down in flames due to a clumsy mistake.
But why should non-business travelers learn about the foreign culture before a trip?
- It’s a nice way to bridge the gap between cultures and natives often appreciate the attempt.
- It’s an important way of avoiding mortally offending the local public and even the risk of possible arrest.
- It’s a great way to open doors and gain access to experiences that other travelers may not get to enjoy.
While people who are serving foreign tourists are often more forgiving, others may not be so understanding. Causing offense to someone who is in a position of power, such as an officer of the law, or to someone who holds the keys to a portion of your trip, such as a tour operator or innkeeper, and you could cause yourself, and your travel plans, a great deal of harm.
Some travelers are more affected by cultural faux pas
Business travelers aren’t the only types of travelers who can be significantly affected by cross-cultural mistakes:
- In some countries, women run the risk of violence and serious abuse – even arrest – if they do something that is considered offensive.
- Students studying abroad and expats living in foreign countries run not only the risk of embarrassment, but of isolation and ostracism by the locals when they make cultural blunders – a mistake that can increase their culture shock and lengthen the time it takes to successfully assimilate.
- Workers in foreign countries run the risk of severely damaging their employment opportunities and reputations if they make mistakes that significantly offend their co-workers or boss.
- Researchers performing valuable work in foreign countries run the risk of losing their visas and even being deported should they commit a serious cultural error.
Are our customs really all that different?
You bet they are. Here are just a few examples:
- In France, money is never discussed over dinner but the Japanese are comfortable asking how much money you earn and how large your home is, and consider it rude if you don’t respond.
- In Greece, it’s an insult to leave food on your plate when dining at another person’s home, but in Russia it’s essential to leave a little on your plate to indicate that the host has provided ample hospitality.
- In Armenia emptying a bottle into another person’s glass obligates that person to buy the next bottle, so it’s polite to put the last few drops into your own glass instead.
- In America, the OK gesture is standard communication but in Brazil it’s akin to extending the middle finger in the U.S.
There are, of course, many more differences between the various cultures of the world, but it’s important to note that culture is a fluid and changing thing – it’s not static. In each society, the culture will have many nuances affecting the balance of its unique business and social etiquette rule structure. The personal cultures of individuals that live within the society – their religion, their gender, and more – also affect the culture, making it difficult to quantify.
Best ways to learn about foreign customs
If you’ve purchased a travel guide, such as those from Lonely Planet, Frommer’s or Fodor’s, it will typically have information about the foreign etiquette, customs, and protocol of the country you are visiting.
While we can’t vouch for the accuracy of the information available there, the Internet of course has a number of useful and free resources for studying foreign customs and etiquette as well, including (but not limited to) the following websites:
- Kwintessential – here we found lots of country-specific information about gift-giving, table manners, business meetings, and more.
- Executive Planet – this site focuses on business etiquette, but the depth of information is impressive.
Smartphone users may also find useful international etiquette apps that can help them navigate the cultural landscape in a foreign country.
See also, the Number 1 Way to Avoid Getting Arrested Overseas for more information.