Do you think you’re a well-mannered person? Of course you do. Most people tend to believe that they are polite, well-mannered and refined. Let’s say you’re invited to a dinner party, you’re on time and you shake hands with the host and bring a beautiful green hat as a present. You don’t eat with your mouth full; you don’t slurp or burp at the dinner table. Still think you are well-mannered, yes? Well you’re not if you’re on foreign soil.
If you’re in China or Japan you are in a pickle. You just offended the host by suggesting his wife is unfaithful to him and that the meal was awful. How? Well in foreign countries innocent gestures that mean nice thing to us might be considered very rude in other countries.
The former President of the U.S had the misfortune to deal with such a situation. In 1992 George Bush visited Australia and from the window of his limousine he held up his index and middle finger in a “V” like shape. This V means peace and victory in North America. Unfortunately Bush gestured with his palm facing inward not outwards that is the equivalent of “up yours”. So, you might imagine what the reaction of the public was.
You may think these kinds of things can’t possibly happen to you, well you might think twice after learning more about: punctuality, slurping and burping, green hats, compliments and the well known “thumb up” sign.
First of all, arriving on time for a social event might be very appreciated in Germany, but in Argentina punctuality is not highly valued and being late is not considered rude, this it is expected from the guests. Not strange enough? Well, what about the fact that we try and try to teach our children not to make noises at the dinner table and eat properly. No slurping or burping is tolerated at the table because it’s rude. But in Chinese culture these sounds are part of a normal dinner, slurping is considered a compliment to the host. If you slurp up you soup from the bowl you are a well-mannered guest and just made a compliment to the chef, then comes the burp part that means the meal was very good and you are satisfied.
Another peculiar thing about China is the fact that bringing a green hat as a gift for your host in China might end up with you and a brand new blue eye. A gift of a green hat implies that a man’s wife is unfaithful to him. Why the hat and why green? It’s because turtles are green and hide their heads in their shell, so calling someone a “turtle” actually means you are calling him a coward and a fool for not seeing what’s going on behind his back.
Try complementing someone in Africa about their clothes (or better yet, don’t!) “What a nice shirt” doesn’t mean the same thing in Senegal or Nigeria as the most of us are used to. You will realize that the person will suddenly feel the obligation to give you his shirt. An awkward situation all around, especially if you made a compliment about the new rug and you have to take it home on your back. It’s not an offensive gesture, but still it’s a good one to avoid.
Another good advice to remember when you are on foreign soil is to know how to ask a local person for directions. Pointing is considered very rude in many countries in Europe. It’s probably wiser just to abandon the gesture altogether and not stern conflicts with the locals. You could rather use your whole hand to show the direction where you want to go.
One of the most commonly used gestures besides the real peace sign, regularly used between teens and young adults, is the “thumbs up”. It’s a gesture of agreement and approval. Or is it not? Well not in Australia, Thailand or Iraqi. In these places it is the equivalent of the middle finger, and we all know what that means. If you don’t want to seriously offend somebody, try not to make this mistake when traveling to the aforementioned destinations.
So don’t say we didn’t warn you! Our best advice to you is to check into the countries cultural etiquette that you are visiting. It may save you from many embarrassing moments that can be avoided just by learning some general facts about other people’s culture.
By Széplaki Zita