If you’ve done any traveling at all, you’re likely quite aware that customs and etiquette differ from one culture to another: what may be perfectly innocuous in one place may be hideously offensive in another, and vice-versa. Granted, even if you haven’t traveled at all, you’re probably aware of the fact that certain types of behavior aren’t exactly acceptable in other countries: belching at the table may be a sign of gratitude in some places, but in most areas of North America and Europe, such a display will earn you a fair bit of ire. Whether you plan on traveling to any of the places listed below or just doing business with a foreign client, it’s important to educate yourself on the standards of politesse and etiquette beforehand—the last thing you want to do is offend someone with any ignorant, boorish behavior. Here’s how to be polite in 20 different countries:
When dealing with Japanese clients, be sure to dress fairly conservatively, and make sure that you bow lower than they do upon meeting them. Accept gifts with both hands (and open them later, not in front of the giver), and never blow your nose at the dining table. Avoid asking and answering direct questions: it’s better to imply rather than ask, and to answer with vagueness during conversations.
Keep personal distance and don’t touch people when you talk to them. Ensure proper table manners, never discuss religion or politics, and try to maintain a level of quiet dignity. Silences during conversations are not considered uncomfortable, and it’s better to be a bit quiet, rather than overly verbose. When dining out, don’t drink before the host offers a toast, and don’t get drunk.
When meeting others, women should initiate handshakes with men, but all people should avoid making too much eye contact; that can be seen as aggressive and belligerent behavior. If sharing a meal with others, keep your elbows off the table and try to avoid burping at all costs. Keep your hands off your hips, and make sure you never make the “okay” sign with your hand: it’s vulgar.
When greeting someone older or of a higher status than yourself, grip their right wrist with your left hand while shaking it; it’s a sign of respect and deference. Do ask questions about their health, family, business etc. before getting to major topics, as skipping these niceties is seen as impolite. If sharing meals, do not begin eating until the eldest male has been served and starts to eat.
Keep your voice low and quiet when conversing with others, as that is seen as being mature and respectful. Be aware that people will speak to you at a closer distance than you may be used to, and you may be touched on the arm or shoulder during conversation. Polite jokes are acceptable, as is inquiring about family members. Never show the bottoms of your shoes.
Much like Scandinavian people, Germans tend to be reserved and polite. Ensure that handshakes are firm, and always address people with Mr. or Mrs. followed by their surname (“Herr” or “Frau” if you’re confident that you’ll pronounce them well). Decent table manners are of great importance, and be sure to say “please” and “thank you” often.
Be generous with saying “thank you” when someone does anything from pouring you tea to offering you a gift, and if or when you receive a gift, take it with both hands. If someone makes a comment about your weight/appearance/idiosyncrasy, try not to take it as offensive: it’s merely an observation on their part.
Years of British rule in Barbados established a high degree of politesse, so be sure to greet people as Mr./Mrs./Miss and say “please” and “thank you” often. Formal table manners are a must, as is modest dress anywhere but at the beach. Avoid discussing religion and politics, and stick to neutral-yet-friendly topics of conversation with others.
Be sure to dress modestly (especially if you’re female), and if you go out for a meal, eat with your right hand; the left is considered unclean. Sit on your left hand if you need to, but keep it away from your food. Don’t show anyone the bottom of your shoe, and try not to touch anyone with your feet.
Be sure to say “please” and “thank you” often, and always thank people for their time. If you need help at a shop, apologize to the staff for bothering them with a question, and be sure to thank them before you leave. Make sure that you chew with your mouth closed during meals, don’t speak when your mouth is full, and for goodness’ sake, don’t slurp anything!
Don’t be offended if a Korean woman merely nods instead of offering her hand to shake, and don’t extend yours to her. Never touch a Korean person while talking to them (unless you’re on very friendly terms), and maintain a respectable distance: personal space is rather vital. Try to avoid talking too much during meals, and offer to pay even if you know that the other party is treating you.
This is another country in which people will lean in close when they speak to you, and touch you often during a conversation. Pulling away is considered rude and “cold”, so be prepared to sacrifice your own personal space for the sake of social courtesy. Maintain strong eye contact, and don’t put your hands on your hips.
Shake hands with everyone, ensuring that you smile and make eye contact while doing so. Make appointments for meetings and social functions well in advance (like, a couple of weeks in advance), and be punctual when you show up. Feel free to bring gifts such as chocolate or flowers when visiting people.
Turning down an alcoholic drink is considered terribly offensive in Russia, so it’s a good idea to fortify yourself with some greasy food before heading out for a meal with Russian or Ukrainian clients. Don’t smile at strangers or they’ll think you’re deranged, and when paying for items, place your money on the counter rather than trying to hand it directly to the cashier.
Canadians are (for the most part) polite, respectful, and fairly reserved people. It’s important to remember social niceties such as saying “please” and “thank you” when dealing with them, and if you open doors for people and offer firm handshakes, you’re sure to stay in the good books. When ordering food or drinks, never begin with “I want…,” as it’s considered rude and ignorant to do so.
Dress formally and respectably in churches and upscale restaurants, and ensure that your table manners are impeccable. Be punctual, always be generous with social niceties, and under no circumstances should you ever be drunk in public. Say “please” often, and if possible, try to make at least a bit of an effort to learn a few Italian words and phrases.
It’s best to dress modestly when traveling around Nepal, and if you end up exchanging gifts with others, never do so with your left hand. When it comes to sharing meals, use utensils so you avoid contaminating anything with implements that may have touched your mouth, and take care to remove your shoes upon entering someone’s home, or a temple.
Greet people with a warm handshake and ready smile, and invite them to address you by your first name. Don’t be offended if someone shows up 15 to 20 minutes late, or if they take phone calls during your meeting with them. If asked personal questions, answer with generalizations. If you’re male, don’t speak to another man’s wife if she hasn’t been introduced to you.
Like in Canada, people in the United Kingdom tend to be fairly polite and reserved. Possibly more so. Be very courteous in your speech, never address anyone by their given name unless invited to do so (always address them as Mr./Mrs./Miss followed by their surname to begin with), and ensure that you use proper table manners when sharing meals.
Smile often, don’t be afraid to touch others during conversation, and be generous with the “thumbs-up” sign. Avoid the “okay” gesture (it’s offensive), and if you eat a sandwich, use a napkin to hold it rather than your bare hands. Don’t use a toothpick without covering your mouth with your free hand, and if you’re going to wear a tiny string Speedo on the beach, be sure to strut around in it.
Want to be polite even when you're saying no? The Gentle Art of Saying NoFeatured photo credit: Cropped torso portrait of a polite fashionable sophisticated man wearing a dinner jacket and bow tie offering his hand in an act of chivalry or greeting via Shutterstock