Cultural Curiosities, Social Norms and Etiquette


I still remember my cotillion teacher chanting, “Sit tall and sit pretty!” Then we heard, “I’m seeing some things that are not so pretty.” Thirty-six preteens rolled their eyes collectively. One of them was me. My parents thought I would enjoy this etiquette class. I’ll admit hating it then, but appreciating it later. Now I don’t worry about embarrassing myself in polite society, at least not here in the states. But I have found different rules apply when traveling abroad. Other cultures have vastly different (and often hysterical) social norms and etiquette. Here are just a few:

My Compliments to the Chef!

  • In many parts of Asia, it is complimentary to slurp your noodles. The louder, the better.
  • In China specifically, burping at the table is high praise indeed.
  • If you are dining in Cambodia, the Philippines, Korea or Egypt, be sure to leave the last bite. It is an insult to your host if you clean your plate, as this implies they have not fed you enough.
  • When visiting Eastern countries like Morocco, India, Africa and parts of the Middle East, remember to use your RIGHT HAND ONLY for eating. It is bad form to use the left hand as that hand is reserved for less savory tasks, such as using the bathroom.
  • Even the use of utensils varies. In the US we use our knife in the right hand and fork in the left while cutting, then transfer the fork to our right hand for eating. In England, the fork remains in the left hand. In France, one should never cut their salad with a knife. Folding the lettuce leaves on the fork is preferred.
  • In Japan, it is considered rude to refill your own emptied glass. Instead, you must wait for someone to notice and refill it for you.
  • In France, don’t be surprised to find the bread placed directly on the table (sans plate). Hey, that’s one less dish to wash, right?
  • And if you are startled by burping at the table you’re going to love this one. The Inuit people of Canada believe that passing gas at the table (yes, that kind of gas) is the best way to show their appreciation for a wonderful meal.

Meeting and Greeting

Here in the US, there are a few hard and fast rules for introductions and social occasions. Such as: arrive on time, introductions are made with a smile and a handshake, and never forget to compliment the hostess. These should be universal niceties, right? Well, no, you’ll want to be especially careful with these when you are abroad.

  • In Korea, a smile in greeting is perceived as belittling. What looks like “I’m happy to meet you” in our culture, conveys “I smile because I think you are not too smart” in Korea.
  • Punctuality is frowned upon in Argentina. Arriving on time is considered rude. It is polite to arrive 30 to 60 minutes late. I could like living in Argentina!
  • Be mindful when complimenting the hostess in Africa and some Arab countries. If you are complimenting them on an object in their possession, they will feel obligated to give it to you.
  • When sharing business cards or cards of introduction in Japan, here, too, there is an etiquette ritual. The card should be received in two hands, read thoroughly then carefully placed in your wallet or carry all. Any deviation from this ritual is considered a cut.

Visit for other valuable information. There you will find quick tips for just about any country. For example, Germany:


5-10% in restaurants (put tips in waiter’s hand, not on table)

Round up taxi fares


“Prost!” or “Zum Wohl!” = Cheers

Napkin in lap

Elbows off table

It’s polite to clear plate completely

Do’s & Don’ts

DO – Be on time, Punctuality is important

DØN’T – Touch while conversing


Shake hands for greeting

Knock knuckles on table for applause

Beckon with palm up, finger curling

I hope the next time you are mapping out your ‘trip of a lifetime,’ you won’t forget to research some of the country’s cultural curiosities. Sure, passports, luggage, and travel guides will get you around. But you’ll be more comfortable (and better received) when you know their social norms and etiquette. Why not have fun with it? After all, ‘In Rome, we do as the Romans do.’