The Extraordinary Variations In Manners, Customs And Habits Around The World
April 3, 2003 4:11 AM   Subscribe

Be Careful Out There: Your Etiquette May Be My Nyetiquette Oh behave! We've all made faux pas, gaffes and complete asses of ourselves when dealing with foreign cultures. Travelling abroad isn't even necessary - a simple sushi meal is fertile ground for a vast panoply of unintended rudeness. While not even the most experienced traveller can insulate himself or herself completely from ocasionally shocking, disgusting or insulting his or her hosts, here is a little something worth keeping in your laptop. Some cultures are more difficult than others but I'll bet we all have our own embarrassing etiquette bloopers, right?
posted by MiguelCardoso (40 comments total)

Chile.... A chin flick means "I couldn’t care less." Educated people do not use this gesture.
Hitting the palm of your left hand with your right fist is considered a vulgar gesture.

Who makes up these things? I've never seen anybody make either of those gestures.
posted by signal at 4:55 AM on April 3, 2003

Great find, Miguel! Nice to know that I've been shaming myself with bad sushi etiquette for the last 25 years!
posted by MrBaliHai at 5:07 AM on April 3, 2003

If you take food from a shared plate (such as in the above situation), use the reverse ends of your chopsticks rather than the ends which go in your mouth.


Never leave rice after a meal. Leaving any kind of food is considered rude, but leaving rice is especially so.

Rubbish. But hey what I do know, I eat sushi with my fingers.
posted by dydecker at 5:26 AM on April 3, 2003


"Two- to three-minute pauses of silence are common. Don't interrupt this silence."

posted by mook at 5:44 AM on April 3, 2003

Denmark: "Never dress sloppily."

What? From what I've seen, that's all the Danes know how to do.

This is pretty fun stuff, although may be a bit outdated. I love reading the US etiquette, imagining myself as a foreign visitor there, as I sometimes feel.
posted by Dick Paris at 5:47 AM on April 3, 2003

Norway: "Do not stand close to a Norwegian, back slap or put your arm around anyone."
Also: "Never lump Norwegians together with Swedes or Danes."
posted by Songdog at 5:59 AM on April 3, 2003

This is reasonably accurate with regard to Korea, all things considered. Some of it is a bit outdated, but that's not surprising, considering the rate things change here.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:02 AM on April 3, 2003

I read the section about Britain. While some information is correct, most is stereotypical bullshit. I'm surprised the author didn't mention crumpets or cucumber sandwiches.
posted by salmacis at 6:09 AM on April 3, 2003

What is a crumpet, by the way? I've always pictured something halfway between a pastry and a brass musical instrument.
posted by signal at 6:21 AM on April 3, 2003

A good time girl about to have a good time with you.. that's crumpet.
posted by Frasermoo at 6:33 AM on April 3, 2003

* Do not call a German at home unless it is an emergency.
posted by foot at 6:37 AM on April 3, 2003

More on crumpet.
posted by Frasermoo at 6:37 AM on April 3, 2003

Sod crumpet. More on cucumber sandwiches.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:47 AM on April 3, 2003

Swedes are factual, practical, precise, reserved and get to the point quickly.

The business community is very political. Everyone is careful about what they say to or about anyone else.

So true. Four years down here and I still, on daily basis, usually unaware of it, insult clients and business partners by being too direct.
posted by psychomedia at 6:56 AM on April 3, 2003

You all forget this guide is written for decent, well-behaved people; not for dysfunctional drop-outs, socially-challenged proto-maoist rebels and flamboyant, in-your-face tardo-punks and unrepentant losers such as yourselves. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:08 AM on April 3, 2003

This is like the google directory of social stereotypes. For example, in Ireland, supposedly:

It is considered more proper for a woman to order a glass of beer or stout rather than a pint.

I'm Irish and I prefer women to drink pints, does that make me a proto-maoist, flamboyant, rebellious, socially-challenged, dysfunctional drop-out? No, don't answer that.
posted by jamespake at 7:16 AM on April 3, 2003

I'm all for cross-cultural understanding, but the information in this guide for Canada is mostly crap. At best it's about 10 years out of date, at worst it's completely wrong. The information on Brazil isn't particularly accurate either. Apparently Brazilian women are all oversexed and underdressed.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:52 AM on April 3, 2003

Helpful hint for Bolivia:

Never praise Chile, Brazil or Paraguay. Bolivia has lost wars with and land to all its neighbors.
posted by gottabefunky at 8:18 AM on April 3, 2003

If you are going out for dinner in Australia:

Do not say "I'm stuffed" after a meal. This means you are pregnant.

And don't forget: Australia produces excellent wine. Taking wine would be like taking sand to the desert. Quite amusing!
posted by Onanist at 8:23 AM on April 3, 2003

Miguel, fantastic link. As a token of my appreciation, Hershey bars and chrysanthemums will be delivered to your door.
posted by PrinceValium at 8:27 AM on April 3, 2003

My husband and I once almost ruined the best meal we ever had at a little place in Paris. We'd eaten huge salades vertes and massive galettes au fromage and a bottle of wine apiece. When the waiter brought us dessert menus we waved them off completely and just asked for coffee.

He was so offended that we hadn't even looked at the desserts that he brought us the coffee and left us to sit there with it for forty-five minutes. He would not make eye contact with us. He would not respond to waving. He would not offer more coffee or wine. He would only pout.

He finally brought the bill and we still left a huge fat tip and effusive thanks, but we certainly learned a lesson about ordering etiquette. We recommend the place to everyone who goes to Paris with the caveat: At least look at the dessert menu.
posted by padraigin at 8:51 AM on April 3, 2003

Padraigin, while I can not say for certain since I was not there, I don't think you're waiter was giving you the brush-off for your brush-off of the dessert menu. It is not at all uncommon to refuse desert (especially after cheese) and go straight to coffee. What is also not uncommon is to then be left alone for 45 minutes after coffee and needing to send a flare to receive your check. Table turnover is not the priority in a French restaurant; proper serving pace is (e.g. my eyes were big as saucers this week when our usual waiter at our usual café took away my wife's plate while I was still eating -- a big non-non. We ribbed him gently about it.)

Where you may have gone wrong at that meal is having wine with your salad (not that the waiter would actually care or hold to this view) -- a very traditional interpretation of the French table does not support the drinking wine while eating something seasoned with vinegar. The two are considered to perform the same function, especially when accompanying cheese. Not that it ever stops me.
posted by Dick Paris at 9:09 AM on April 3, 2003

You all forget this guide is written for decent, well-behaved people; not for dysfunctional drop-outs, socially-challenged proto-maoist rebels and flamboyant, in-your-face tardo-punks and unrepentant losers such as yourselves. ;)

So true. ;)
I had a good chuckle at the 'Britain' section, but a lot of it rings true - for people who want to do business and mix with the influential - particularly people who might want to make an impression in the City of London, say - rather than people who might be here to travel, go to raves, attend football matches, for instance. It's amusing, but it's aimed at a particular demographic - people who have more money than sense. Good luck to them. :)
posted by plep at 9:20 AM on April 3, 2003

D.P., I'm not so sure: He was very sweet to us up until the point where he offered dessert menus. When we demurred, claiming full bellies, he got very huffy. It was clear to us only because it was so surprising.

But seriously, we can't wait to go back. The waiters could throw rotten fruit at us, and we'd still be eating galettes with pleasure.
posted by padraigin at 9:25 AM on April 3, 2003

[beckons MiguelCardoso with palm down and fingers waving, as though patting a child on the head.]

Good link!
posted by Hildago at 9:25 AM on April 3, 2003

Here is a site for many more resources on international business, the link below goes specifically to their Culture page:

globalEDGE Resource Desk - culture

One of the best articles on cultural etiquette was a NY Times article (Link is Google Cache):

Learning to Avoid a Deal-Killing Faux Pas in Japan
posted by tuxster at 9:32 AM on April 3, 2003

I loved reading the US section. Most of it was spot on...
Keep your distance when conversing. If an American feels you are standing too close, he or she may step back without even thinking about it.
People who like to touch really like touching, and people who do not like to touch really dislike being touched. You will need to watch your colleagues for clues on what they are comfortable with.
I'm not a toucher.
posted by birdherder at 9:57 AM on April 3, 2003

I of course went to the United States section first, and found myself wishing that I had been able to read it back when I was growing up here. Those of us who are more inclined towards technical manuals and books than we are adept at picking up social graces aren't necessarily able to grasp concepts like:

The only proper answers to the greetings "How do you do?" "How are you?" or "How are you doing?" are "Fine," "Great," or "Very well, thank you." This is not a request for information about your well-being; it is simply a pleasantry.

I swear, I didn't realize this until I was 14 or so. I was actually giving detailed responses to those questions. Also, I didn't realize this one until reading it today:

Stand while being introduced. Only the elderly, the ill and physically unable persons remain seated while greeting or being introduced.

All this time, I've been doing it wrong.
posted by profwhat at 10:22 AM on April 3, 2003

The Japanese drinking rules are remarkably true, especially these two:

Drinking is a group activity. Do not say "no" when offered a drink.

An empty glass is the equivalent of asking for another drink. Keep your glass at least half full if you do not want more
posted by SweetJesus at 10:24 AM on April 3, 2003

What is also not uncommon is to then be left alone for 45 minutes after coffee and needing to send a flare to receive your check. Table turnover is not the priority in a French restaurant; proper serving pace is

Oh, man, word. This flipped me out in Paris, but many places seem to take the stance that your table is your table until the bitter end. I never got used to the waiters suddenly deserting you for the better part of an hour. I too thought they hated my guts, until this one guy finally showed back up all twinkly, and performed a little bump-and-grind for us while he completed the check.
posted by Skot at 10:38 AM on April 3, 2003

I went right to the US section and it's neat to read all the customs I am completely used to that people from other cultures might find odd.

*Americans smile a great deal, even at strangers. They like to have their smiles returned.
*Men and women will sit with legs crossed at the ankles or knees, or one ankle crossed on the knee.
*Americans prefer directness in communication. When Americans say "yes" or "no," they mean precisely that. "Maybe" really does mean "it might happen"; it does not mean "no."

While I am fully aware cultural differences exist, I am not well traveled outside the US (to be rectified soon, I hope) and it just never occured to me that some one would expect you to say something other than "no" when the answer is "no."

Fun link. I'll have to share this one with my employer:

A successful meeting is short and to the point.
posted by jennyb at 10:44 AM on April 3, 2003

Unless you are totally drunk, it is not advised to refuse a drink. Amen!
posted by G_Ask at 10:46 AM on April 3, 2003

Jennyb: English speakers use polite softeners too, eg: "Would you like to come to my birthday party on Friday?" "Oh, I'd love to but I can't, I'm busy..." It's hard just to tell the truth: No.
posted by dydecker at 10:56 AM on April 3, 2003

Great link, MiguelCardoso!

A few people here have noted that some of the 'rules' listed for their country were outdated or just plain wrong. Has anyone seen something important or obvious for their locale that this guide missed?
posted by GriffX at 2:38 PM on April 3, 2003


Americans appreciate and are impressed by numbers. Using statistics to support your opinions will help you be persuasive.

Very true, unfortunately, in some cases. Was it Harry Truman who was shocked to learn that nearly half of all Americans are of below-average intelligence?
posted by GriffX at 2:44 PM on April 3, 2003

Hmm... the Australian page wasn't too bad except in some of the explanitary details...

The "thumbs up" gesture is also considered obscene.

It's not obscene... you just look like a dickhead.

Do not say "I'm stuffed" after a meal. This means you are pregnant.

Pregnant? Hmm.. I don't think so. I think most Aussies, at the end of the meal would understand, and commonly use, the meaning "I ate too much". Don't say it cause it makes you sound like a guttonous jerk.

Any other context I'd take it as analgous for "I'm screwed", "I'm f*&cked", "I'm up feceses tributory and devices for propelling my vessel have been ommited from the inventory" in sentances such as .. "This assignment is due tommorow and I've barely even started. I'm stuffed." "I've just run all the way home. I'm stuffed." Perhaps I might take it to mean "I'm pregnant" if woman said, "Is it a blue or a pink line for possitive? I think I'm stuffed."

Some fellow Aussie tell me I'm not insane here? :)

Hmm.. worth keeping in mind both...

Australians respect people with strong opinions, even if they don't agree.

.. and...

If you are teased, you are expected to reply in kind, with good humor.

... as they're very likely to be going on at the same time.

Insults may well read like punctuation in a heated debate between friends. :)

Do not sniff or blow your nose in public.

Err... what?! Okay, please turn your head away if you're going to blow your nose but for Pete's sake please do not be sitting there sniffing constantly... that's disgusting.
posted by adamt at 4:13 PM on April 3, 2003

I have a friend who has a standard welcoming speech for visiting American business people: "Welcome to New Zealand. We swear a lot, we say what we think in meetings, and you can't sue us. Understand that and we'll all get on".
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:25 PM on April 3, 2003

Padraigin, I woke this morning and realized something was maybe missing in your tale. What kind of restaurant was it where you had this meal? If it was a crêperie, your description of ordering was indeed outside of the norm, although not completely offensive.

If your galette was truly "massive", then it could not have been a serious crêperie but just for the record:

When dining at a crêperie, a meal satrts with a galette (a galette being a savory crêpe). When finished with your first galette the waiter will bring the menu again and you can order another galette if you like: the first is then the starter, the second a main course, a third meaning that you are "stuffed" (or "pregnant" as they say in Australia ;-). Most people follow a more reserved pattern, having one galette (main course) followed by one sweet crêpe (dessert). The meal is generally accompanied by hard (or soft) cider which is always drunk from a shallow ceramic cup. A salad is sometimes an aside to the savory galette.

While I've seen some people drink wine with crêpes, it is outside the norm. Two bottles of wine at a crêperie between two people might make one a bit addled, leading to tales of massive galettes and waiters shooting fire from their eyes. ;-)
posted by Dick Paris at 11:09 PM on April 3, 2003

« Older The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head   |   the imaginary world dot com Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments