Trying not to unwittingly offend the locals

I figure that it’s inevitable that I’ll commit some unintended faux pas when abroad—the kind that I never would’ve guessed in a million years. It just comes with the territory, as a foreigner. But I don’t think that’s any reason to be sloppy. Why not at least try to avoid the most simple differences in etiquette from the start?

That’s why I like to pick up books like “Going Dutch in Beijing: The International Guide to Doing the Right Thing” by Mark McCrum. He covers the gamut of topics, from What Not to Say, to Relating to the Opposite Sex, to Toasts & Drinks.

“Many African languages have no word for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ but this doesn’t reflect an ingrained rudeness. It’s more that such statements are seen as unnecessary between individuals who already have a powerful obligation to provide for each other.”

“In Turkey people toss their heads backward and raise their eyebrows to say no.”

“Estonians and Italians regard cutting bread with a knife as bad manners. It should be torn with the hands.”

McCrum does a good job of not only mentioning the customs, but also explaining the reasoning behind many of them. But I wish that the book would’ve been organized by country instead of by subject—it would be more helpful for comparing countries and planning for a trip.

That’s when I saw “Express Yourself!: The Essential Guide to International Understanding” by Michael Powell. It’s cleanly designed, organized by each of the 45 countries listed, and consistently broken down into the same topics, including Speaking, Body Language, and Sense of Humor.

“Croatians enjoy irony, cynicism, and dark humor. A joke may be delivered without any facial cues such as a wink or a smile, so be alert to deadpan delivery.

“The Japanese desire to please means they find it very difficult to say ‘no,’ preferring instead a gentle negative such as ‘I’ll consider it’ or ‘This could be very difficult.'”

I found myself flipping past the more exotic places like Saudi Arabia—probably because it’s a given that its customs will be foreign to me. Instead, I was most interested in the subtleties of places that I thought I already knew (but the information sometimes proved me wrong).

And it’s interesting to sneak a peek at what’s written up about your own country. It puts its own spin on cultural differences, when you might not otherwise question whether a particular custom is done any other way, huh?

“In the US, it is customary to accept compliments by smiling and saying “thank you,” rather than to deflect it by denying the compliment or being self-effacing, as is common in many Eastern cultures. Often compliments are used to initiate a conversation.”

Posted by | Comments (2)  | May 14, 2008
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

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