How to practice good manners around the world.
Global Etiquette Rules: Why You Should Take Your Shoes Off in Japan
If you’re a guest in a new country, it can be tricky to know how to navigate a dinner party—let alone everyday interactions—without a little help. Should you take off your shoes at the door, or dress to the nines? Is it three cheek kisses, or two? Shake hands, or bow? So Traveler enlisted the help of etiquette experts Myka Meier of Beaumont Etiquette, and William Hanson, one of the United Kingdom’s leading etiquette and protocol coaches, to find out what to expect when someone’s expecting you—and how to conduct yourself accordingly.
If you’re invited to a private home in Japan, you’ll want to invest in some fresh, hole-free socks first: Guests are expected to remove their shoes before entering. Tracking dirt into the house is a sign of disrespect, and to a degree, a matter of cleanliness, since people sit on tatami mats and eat close to the floor—but it also works to guard against Japan’s high humidity and rain, which, if unchecked, could damage the floors of the property. The tradition holds in newer, Western-style homes, too, so don’t balk when you’re handed a pair of hallway slippers—hustle into them as quickly as possible, and with minimal fuss. Be sure to bring a gift for your host or hostess—nicely wrapped (and store-bought) baked goods or sake should do the trick—and note that bowing, too, is a big deal. The more junior person should always bow first, and the deeper the bow, the greater the respect shown.
The Chinese tend not to entertain at home—so don’t expect an invitation. Most hospitality is conducted in restaurants (and if the goal is to really impress, in a private dining room) where hosts will typically choose dishes for their guests. You’ll likely be offered a regional delicacy, like Nanjing’s duck blood and vermicelli soup, so for the sake of politeness, try it, and do your best to eat as much as you can. Business travelers, take note: Business cards are exchanged at the beginning of a meeting, pre-handshake, and should be offered and received with two hands.
Italians are pretty lax when it comes to punctuality. The society is notoriously polychronic, meaning that timekeeping (and being on time) is less linear, and multitasking during meetings is totally acceptable—so if your rendez-vous is punctuated by phone calls and people who are “just dropping in,” don’t take offense. If you think you’ve signed up for a quiet, intimate dinner, think again: Italians practice dopo cena, when a host invites other friends in for an after-dinner drink or dessert. The more, the merrier, right?
If you’re visiting a very traditional home or a temple (or attending a religious ceremony), you may be anointed with a tilaka, a facial marking made from a powder or paste of sandalwood, vermilion, or clay, as part of your welcome. Just don’t confuse it with a bindi—the tilaka is used on both men and women, and is an expression of honor rather than an indicator of marital status (though these days, it’s finding new life as a decorative flourish). Hotels up the ante, with some offering to wash guests’ feet when they arrive, and sending them off with fragrant garlands when they leave. If you’ll be visiting someone’s home, don’t go empty-handed, and if it’s unclear whether there’s a no-shoes policy, just ask. Let elders sit before you do, and expect to be served seconds, thirds, and fourths.
The Swiss enjoy their fondue—and their trusty caquelons—so don’t scratch them with your fork.
The Swiss are a formal bunch, so you can expect a visit to one of their homes to follow suit. Some tips to guard against bad guest behavior: Take off your shoes and line them neatly against the wall; don’t be late; and offer a firm handshake while maintaining steady eye contact. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a gift, and send a thank-you note afterwards—gestures we’re sure Mom would be proud of. If you’re visiting in winter, there’s a good chance your host will serve one of the country’s beloved dishes—cheese fondue—so don’t lose your bread in the sea of melted cheese, and never, ever scratch the bottom of the caquelon, or fondue pot, with your fork.
If you’re headed to a German home, please be on time—tardiness tops the list for rude behavior here, second only maybe to arriving in sweats. Germans make a concerted effort to dress up for their guests, even if it’s a casual dinner between friends—so this would be the time to don that bespoke dinner jacket (though you’ll likely be asked to lose the shoes). Once you’re settled into a seat, keep those hands on the table where your hosts can see them—placing them on your lap, out of view, is taboo, as is forgetting to maintain eye contact while saying prost!
If you’re one of those people who says they’ll “be there in five” when it’s really more like 20, you’re going to like Argentina. It’s perfectly acceptable to be fashionably late in this South American country; in fact, you’d be rude to do otherwise. Personal space, along with time, is a fluid concept—the Argentines are an intimate and affectionate people—so get used to close conversations, and make sure you have enough mints to last the night. Leaning in, as it turns out, is the norm here—lean out of the conservation, and you’ll be considered standoffish. Be prepared to spend a long evening at your host’s house, since dinner might stretch several hours.
Brazilians aren’t known for being shrinking violets, so expect loud, passionate, engaged conversation, and a free flow of opinions along with your feijoada. Going out for dinner? You might want to sate the stomach rumbles with a light snack first, since dinner probably won’t start on time—people typically run about 20 minutes late (or more), whether it’s a meal between family or a more formal affair. Whatever you do, don’t make the ‘OK’ sign (thumb to pointer finger), because it will definitely not be okay—in Brazil, it’s a vulgar gesture.
Throughout the United Kingdom—that’s England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—guests can feel safe abiding by a firm social code. For one, avoid any questions that address one’s health: Use “How do you do?” when you meet someone new, and try to avoid “How are you?” if you’re not greeting a close friend. It might be boring, but better to discuss the weather than to ask what someone does for a living—you’d be getting into money-related territory, which is considered very poor form. And, of course, say yes to the tea—just remember to add milk last.