When we travel, we learn to take nothing for granted. The most ordinary of moments, from shopping at a local market, to ordering food for dinner, can take us outside our comfort zones. Some of these moments of cultural difference might end up as the most memorable and sublime of the trip, but others may be cringe-worthy catastrophes. The difference? In an effort to be good guests, savvy travelers learn the rules of etiquette in their destination country ahead of time.
As you prepare for your future journeys, consider these etiquette tips in order to avoid cultural faux pas.
In the United States, restaurant workers rely upon tips for the majority of their wages, so tipping 15% to 20% of the total check amount is the norm. Canada also follows the 15% to 20% rule. However, restaurant workers in other parts of the world are compensated differently, so tipping is not necessary or is reserved for exceptional service. In Europe and the United Kingdom, tipping 10% of the check to reward great service at an upscale restaurant is acceptable. Leaving only coins for coffee or a drink is also fine.
Most Asian countries don’t require tipping, but it’s okay to leave 5% to 10% as a tip if you choose, and it’s common for a service charge to be added to the bill in upscale restaurants in China. In Japan, though, tipping is not customary and leaving a tip may be perceived as rude, unwanted charity. In India, add a 5% to 10% tip for good service. In all countries, tip in the local currency and tip in cash so that you can be sure the servers receive the tip.
Germans are world-famous for their punctuality. If you are meeting business clients or even local friends, aim for timeliness and call ahead if you are even a few minutes late. To be on the safe side, plan to be 5 to 10 minutes early for important meetings. Japan is another country where trains leave on time and people meet at the appointed time. If a train is even one minute behind in Japan, it’s considered late.
Other countries have more flexible definitions of time. In China, people arriving within 10 minutes of the appointed time are within safe limits, while in Mexico and Saudi Arabia it’s common for individuals to arrive up to half an hour late.
In Brazil, social appointments may be up to half an hour late, but the phrase “English time” signals that true punctuality is expected.
Think before you make hand gestures in a foreign land, and err on the side of caution. Friendly intentions often don’t translate well in cross-cultural hand gestures, and the wrong gesture might land you in an embarrassing situation. In Bangladesh, China, Japan, and Latin America, you might think you’re helpfully pointing to a sign on the wall by extending your index finger, but in reality, you just gained a reputation for rudeness.
A wave of the hand with an open palm signals a friendly hello in the United States, but in Greece an open palm facing you is considered an insulting statement of rejection. The direction of your palm could also lead to an inadvertent insult in England. Be careful if you’re ordering two beers at a pub by raising your fingers. To be on the safe side, think of giving the “peace sign” and be sure that your palm is facing outward if you ever raise your index and middle fingers. The same two fingers raised with the palm facing inward is a profane gesture, the equivalent of raising the middle finger in America.
Avoid accidental profanity in Brazil and Germany, too, by refraining from touching the tip of the index finger to the thumb. This “OK” gesture has a positive connotation in the United States but is highly offensive in those countries, and in many others. Another case of good intentions gone wrong is the “thumbs up” gesture. In quite a few English-speaking countries, including the United States and Canada, “thumbs up” is a sign of approval. However, this seemingly innocent gesture has a profane meaning in parts of the Middle East and West Africa. In Germany, “thumbs up” simply communicates the number one.
Business Dinner Etiquette
If you’re traveling for business, the stakes are even higher than potential embarrassment. Offending your international counterparts might lead to millions in lost business, so etiquette is of the upmost importance.
Although you might be eager to discuss business during dinner in Germany, take a deep breath and recalibrate your expectations. Business discussions in Germany are expected to happen either before or after dinner. On the other hand, if you’re dining with someone from China, it’s acceptable to talk about business during dinner, though business matters shouldn’t be the main topic of conversation. Be sure to inquire about your counterparts’ families and personal interests.
Dining with Indian guests means that you should carefully consider your entrée choice. Cows are sacred in India, so your hosts may be offended if you order a juicy hamburger. You’ll probably want to skip the bottle of wine or any alcoholic drink if dining with Indian guests, because alcohol is prohibited in Muslim and Sikh cultures.
Lastly, keep in mind that if you’re eating traditional Indian food, you’ll be expected to use your hands, but only your right hand. The left hand is considered unclean because it’s used for personal hygiene. The prohibition on left-hand use also applies to countries in the Middle East.
Ready, Set, Go
Although differences in culture and etiquette may seem daunting, immersing yourself in them and successfully navigating them often ends up being the highlight of a trip. It’s eye-opening to learn that the rules of your home country aren’t universal truths but simply regional customs. Think of your trip abroad and dinner with international colleagues as a prime opportunity to challenge your own beliefs, exercise your ability to adapt, and kindle new friendships across continents. Spend some time doing your research, then book that plane ticket and pack your bags. The world is waiting.