Cultural Sensitivity and Etiquette:
Putting Your Best Foot Forward
In the ninth inning of an Olympic baseball playoff game, the batter on the Japanese team cracked a towering fly ball deep into left field. It dropped just short of the low fence but then bounced over. When the runner pulled up at second base, half the crowd rose to its feet, screaming for him to keep going around the bases.
He stopped because he knew that the ground rules limited him to a double. Think how foolish he would have appeared if he had kept running or argued with the umpire. In the same way, it’s the job of every traveler to learn local ground rules. Here are some useful examples.
Some of our familiar gestures don’t travel well. For example, the thumb touching forefinger “OK” sign is a friendly gesture in Atlanta but in Brazil it refers to an intimate part of the anatomy. In England, giving someone a “V” sign with your palm facing inward is the equivalent of the middle-finger sign here.
Beckoning someone by crooking your finger at them can be an insult in Asia and the Middle East. In parts of South America and Europe, slapping the back of one fist with the other hand conveys your wish that the other person engage in an improbable activity.
In Greece an upward nod of the head means “No,” while tilting the head to one side means “Yes.” If you raise an open hand to refuse something offered to you in Greece, your gesture may be understood as “go to hell.” (In that connection, be warned that a Greek may smile when very angry.)
In India, emphatic wagging of the head side-to-side might mean “Yes” or any number of other things. What you need to know is that it doesn’t mean “No.”
In parts of Southeast Asia, standing with hands on hips as you address someone projects hostility. That makes it a good posture to avoid when dealing with an armed official.
In many places—and Arabic cultures are good examples—hospitality is taken very seriously. You risk giving offense if you don’t accept a sincere offer of food, shelter, or assistance. At the same time, males must be circumspect when talking to or about someone's wife or female relative. Hospitality does not extend that far. If the penalty for thieves is losing a hand . . . well, think about it.
Also be cautious about expressing excessive admiration for someone’s property, like a piece or jewelry or artwork. The owner may insist that you accept it as a gift. If you refuse, you risk giving offense. If you accept, you may be expected to reciprocate.
The way a traveler dresses, in terms of modesty, should be consistent with local standards. Look carefully at how local people dress. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet some travelers either don’t know or don’t care.
Not surprisingly, restrictions on dress affect women more than men. For women, local standards of modest often mean dressing in loose clothing and covering shoulders and legs. In some Muslim countries, such as Jordan, the back of the neck is considered especially provocative and is usually covered by a scarf. In many temples the head must be covered and feet must be free of shoes.
It’s unusual to see local men or women wearing shorts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Male travelers can wear shorts without giving offense (although they won’t be admitted into some temples), but female travelers in shorts would attract unwanted attention. Yes, the double standard is international.
In some countries, it is the custom to finish everything on your plate. In others, you’re expected to leave a bit, indicating that the host was so generous you couldn’t finish.
A guest who samples some of everything always pleases the host. However, if something doesn’t look palatable, better not ask what it is. The reply is likely to make the situation worse, maybe much worse.
In less-developed countries do not eat with your left hand. If you forget, other diners will consider you unclean and perhaps uncivilized. If you don’t understand why, trust me on this one.
Publicly embarrassing a person can give grave offense, especially in Asia, Mediterranean Europe, and Latin America. “Face” is taken seriously and offenses are not lightly forgiven. That means avoiding a public display of temper. It might work once in a while but most of the time it would make matters worse.
In Thailand and other countries where Buddhism is prevalent, it is offensive to point the sole of your foot, with or without a shoe on, toward another person. Speaking of feet, step carefully over the low sill at temple doorways because good spirits are believed to live under the sill. I guess they don’t like the noise.
It’s common in the non-Western world to remove ones shoes prior to entering homes and temples. Watch what others do. If in doubt, slip your shoes off at the door. One result of my traveling is that I never wear “outdoor” shoes inside my own home.
Punctuality is, how shall I say, less prized throughout Latin America than in Europe and North America. Even though it’s hard to generalize about punctuality in the rest of the world, two tips will see you through. First, if you arrive at the scheduled time you may surprise but you’re unlikely to give offense. Second, if the other person arrives significantly later than you did, hold your tongue and temper. His or her arrival may be consistent with local protocol.
Public displays of affection are uncommon in many countries. This inhibition is diminishing but travelers should respect local custom. Holding hands is fine but holding more than that may not be.
A traveler who learns and respects the traditions and customs of others will be treated as a favorite guest, always welcome to return. In this time of heightened tension in many parts of the world avoiding provoking trouble and attracting attention—by observing the standards of local behavior—can be more than a matter of courtesy.
For more information
Consider purchasing CultureGrams (www.culturegrams.com):
each Culture Gram provides comprehensive information
on each of 181 countries. Do’s and Taboos Around the World is a useful book edited by Roger Axtell. www.executiveplanet.com is a business-oriented site but helpful.