We’re all raised told what is or isn’t acceptable in polite company, so that when we’re fully grown we don’t really think about all the little things we do (or don’t do) that are considered polite or rude. It’s not until you have to learn to mind your manners in another culture that you realise how much needs to be done on a daily basis to show respect to others. What is the done thing in one country might be considered uncouth or even downright offensive in another and vice-versa.
In many cultures we shake hands to greet someone, but countries often have their own subtleties involved in the great handshake. A firm, bone-crunching handshake is often a sign of someone confident and authoritative in countries like the UK and USA, but in the Philippines gripping someone’s hand too tightly is a sign of aggression. There are several places where you’re expected to shake everyone’s hand individually when arriving at a party or someone’s home, from Sweden to Iran, and sometimes shake everyone’s hand on the way out too. Hopefully there are never so many people that you spend all night shaking hands!
Bowing is a common form of greeting in parts of East Asia. In both Japan and Thailand, the longer and deeper your bow, the more respect is inferred. In Thailand the way to bow is with your palms together at your chest – this is called wai.
Hands and Feet
To remove your shoes or not to remove your shoes? In Europe it’s usually polite to ask your host whether they would like you to take your shoes off, whereas in many countries in Asia and South America removing your shoes is essential. Sitting in a way that shows the soles of your feet or pointing your feet at someone is a no-no in the Middle East, as feet are considered dirty.
Hands also carry meaning – in India you should only reach for food with your right hand. The right hand is used for eating, while the left is reserved for toilet duties. And in Greece you shouldn’t gesture with the palms of your hands – if you want to wave at someone, do so with your palm facing in, like royalty.
Nom, Nom, Nom
Some table manners are flipped upside-down from one culture to another. For example, burping is usually very rude in Western cultures, whereas in China and Taiwan it’s considered a sign that you’ve enjoyed your meal. Similarly, you’re expected to clear your plate in Europe and North America, but if you do so in China your host will only continue to fill it! Leaving a little food on your plate shows that you’ve had your fill and your host hasn’t short-changed you.
It’s customary to raise a toast or say the local equivalent of “cheers” all over the world. In some parts of Europe this involves “clinking” your glasses together at the same time, but in Hungary this is unpatriotic, as the gesture was once the signal for a coup! Iran has a tradition called taarof, which involves being extremely humble and polite. This includes rejecting the first offer of food and waiting until your host really insists before accepting. And in Morocco, where food is eaten from a communal dish, it’s impolite to serve yourself from parts of the dish that aren’t facing you.
Which differences in social niceties have you noticed around the world?