You’re a newly arrived expat and everything is going well. Your possessions have arrived, your new home is perfect and you can’t wait to get started in the exciting new job.
But as you walk in on day one, greeting colleagues and confidently strutting through the office, a wave of shocked gasps follows you. By the time you reach your desk an awkward silence has settled over the whole business and co-workers are staring open-mouthed.You’re not quite sure why, but you know you’ve not made a good first impression.
You may have spent months brushing up on the language, but you’ve missed something when reading about the culture. There are hundreds of ways to upset people, all unique around the world. In some countries business meeting start with handshakes, in others friendly backslapping bearhugs.
It’s not just about knowing your way around workplace etiquette either; meeting the neighbours, friends and even strangers on the street can lead to a red-faced faux pas. It would be embarrassing to start off on the wrong foot, or hand as the case may be. What’s polite in some countries can be gravely offensive in others. A laughing matter in Europe could be a lingering insult in Asia.
Make sure you dig deep into the etiquette of your destination country, but to give a taste of what to expect, here’s a rundown of certain things to avoid around the world.
Don’t touch anyone’s head – Thailand
In Buddhist Thailand, the head is the most intimate of body parts.
A pat on the head is likely to cause major upset in South East Asia; affectionately ruffling someone’s hair could easily lead to an angry confrontation.
Buddhists believe the soul resides in the head. To reach out and touch the top of the head is roughly equivalent of jamming a hand into their very spiritual being and meddling with their eternal soul.
There aren’t many ways in Western culture to insult an enemy on an essentially transcendental basis, threatening to ruin not just their day but their entire life and those lives to follow.
Don’t put business cards in your wallet – Japan
Japan is a formal culture. Peers bow to each other, bow lower for elders and to their bosses and it’s important to respect the hierarchy of status.
The formality carries through into the business world, and the workplace seeps back into the rest of society. Upon meeting, people will commonly exchanged business cards in a ritual that seems bizarre to outsiders.
After bowing, both parties hand over their details with another small bow, accepting the incoming card with both hands and another bow. This happens in the boardroom and the bar in equal measures and no Japanese professional is properly dressed without a pocket full of business cards.
This isn’t just about networking and trade; the business card indicates your status. Until you know your new friend’s job title, there’s no way to know his status; does he outrank you? How deep should you bow?
The business card avoids any embarrassing conversation or haggling to work out this key information. It also represents your friend’s status, so be careful how you treat it. Casually throwing it into a pocket without reading it dismisses all of their achievements.
Accepting the card with both hands shows respect and care. Placing it in a dedicated business card case suggests you value the relationship and will contact them in the future. Showing a lack of care to your friend’s status will not only upset them but mark you out as disrespectful to others.
Sit down to show respect – Fiji
Fiji is a remarkably easy-going place. The Pacific island nation even greets arrivals at the airport, asking them to adjust to ‘Fiji time’. This isn’t a unique time zone, but a frame of mind where tasks get done eventually, as Fijians are always busy enjoying life at a slower pace.
One thing that Fijians are serious about is showing respect. Although now a tropical holiday hotspot, the majority of islanders still live in small villages with a social structure that has barely changed in centuries.
Every village has a chief or mayor who is the boss of his domain. Only he is allowed to make noise after dark and when he walks into the room, everyone has to sit down and listen.
In many countries standing up is a way of snapping to attention and displaying your readiness to respond to the boss’s requests. It’s a similar idea in Fiji, just demonstrating that you are going to listen to what he has to say.
This peculiarity of Fijian foible caused a stir in the UK when a soldier from the nation promptly sat cross-legged in front of the Queen. Fijians serve in various parts of the British Army, and this particular soldier was stood smartly on Parade for the monarch. When she reached him in the ranks he sank to the floor as a mark of respect.
Two fingers, one big insult -UK
This insult is easy enough to get wrong. Holding up the index and middle fingers of one hand can mean various things. Winston Churchill used the gesture to mean ‘V for victory”. Peace campaigners use it to call an end to all conflict and hip-hop stars use it sideways to signify loyalty to particular gangs.
Making the gesture with your palm towards yourself is an aggressive gesture, one stop short of the universally insulting middle finger, but only in Britain.
Like so much of UK culture, the signal has its roots in a war with France. As the story goes, the Hundred Years’ War saw the European superpowers slog it out across France and the Low Countries to see who got to claim the crown of France.
A long, messy conflict saw the nobility of both nations grinding each other down in a bloody battle of attrition. But it wasn’t the highborn knights on horseback who did the most damage. British farmers and labourers controlled the fate of these two great nations.
The peasant classes formed the ranks of the archers, whose deadly barrages of arrows decimated French charges time and again. French commanders ordered that any Englishman they encountered was to have his bowstring fingers, the right index and middle, hacked off.
This caused outrage amongst the British forces, who took to taunting their opponents by waving their deadly digits in defiance.
The gesture is not just a way of showing you don’t like someone, it’s historically a form of death threat saying ‘I still have the tools I need to kill you’.
Don’t give the thumbs up – Middle East
In the west raising a thumb from a clenched fist is a positive thing, a way of signifying everything is OK. But this gesture signifies something very different in parts of the Middle East.
Waving your opposable digits can cause hostile reactions. The gesture sparked debate in Iraq as coalition troops closed in on Baghdad, initially excited at the prospect of being rid of Saddam Hussein Iraqis flooded out to greet the troops. Leaning out of armoured vehicles and trucks soldiers returned the jubilant cheers with the thumbs up.
Media-savvy Iraqis probably understood this was positive, but as Brendan Koerner of slate.com explains, the action has a different meaning in the Middle East. The gesture “traditionally translates as the foulest of Iraqi insults—the most straightforward interpretation is “Up yours, pal!””
Nobody is really sure where either meaning comes from, but there could be links to ancient Rome, where emperors would use hand gestures to grant clemency for fighting gladiators. We’re sure the gladiators saw this a positive gesture.
Don’t tip – Japan
Japanese waiters, bartenders and chefs are often left grumpy by tourists leaving cash on the tables. Not because the tips weren’t large enough, but because they were there at all. It’s insulting someone’s skill to leave a tip.
Paying for service in Japan is a strict no-no as it is seen as an act of insulting charity, implying that the server was not good enough at their job to earn an honest living from it. You’d never consider bursting into a restaurant kitchen to show the chef ‘how it’s done’, which might even be less damning than leaving a tip.
Don’t mention the king – Thailand
Thailand has a volatile and unpredictable political scene. Parties and religious groups argue about various heated topics, whilst rioting has become more common in the streets of Bangkok. But rising above the boiling maelstrom of politics is the King.
The longest serving head of state anywhere in the world, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been the figurehead of the state since 1946. The country has transformed several times, but he has remained a regal constant through it all.
Widely respected by Thais, the king is revered in roadside portraits and on public holidays. Insults or disrespect from foreigners is likely to be greeted with pretty swift hostility.
The King, the royal family and the institution of the monarchy are also protected in law, with a 15-year prison sentence awaiting anyone slighting the monarch.
Everything is not ‘OK’ in Brazil
Scuba divers around the world commonly touch their thumb and forefingers together to let each other know all is well, as the ‘thumbs up’ is reserved to say ‘let’s swim upwards’.
But this gesture is not acceptable in Brazil. In fact, it’s a very quick way of describing an unpleasant body part, implying that the target of the gesture can be described in similarly vulgar terms.
Don’t wave with your left hand – Middle East, parts of Asia and Africa
This is fairly common knowledge amongst travellers as it pops up around the world.
Toilet habits vary between cultures, but most reserve the left hand for cleaning up afterwards. Consequently using the ‘dirty’ hand for another task is taboo. Eating with the left is not only unhygienic but also a slur on the host.
Pointing or waving at anyone using the left hand is a fiercely unpleasant gesture, implying that you hold them in the same regard as faecal matter.
Finish your meal, or not – Worldwide
There is no greater display of welcome and hospitality than to invite a guest into your home to meet your family and eat your food. It’s a massive display of trust on both sides; you are allowing them into your safest space and they are entirely at your disposal until they leave.
So what better way to cement a friendship than to wine and dine your new acquaintances? They will be keen to show their appreciation of your hospitality. So it’s important you understand how they will do that.
In Europe a polite guest will gratefully enjoy your delicious fare, savouring the flavour and leaving a perfectly clean plate. The message they are sending is that you are an excellent chef and your food is irresistible.
A clear plate in the Middle East and Asia means something slightly different. It means the host is stingy with the portions, leaving their guests hungry. The polite thing to do is to finish the serving, all but a small morsel to signify that the meal was generous and ample.
In China it’s considered polite to audibly signal enjoyment of the dish, slurping on noodles and setting down chopsticks with a little belch.
A clear plate in Asia will quickly be swept up and refilled, a process that will be repeated until the guest leave something behind. Westerners unfamiliar with this practice have found themselves uncomfortably stuffed with dumplings whilst their hosts grumble about their greedy guests.
Food is highly ritualised in most cultures, with nuances and traditions that vary by country and sometimes within country. There can be no quicker way to make friends than with food and drink, but it can be just as easy to cause upset.
What local traditions and taboos exist where you live? Were you accidentally caught out when you first moved abroad? Let us know in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer