Cultural Differences in Etiquette
How do you greet someone you meet for the first time? The answer to this probably depends on where you are. If you try an Asian bow to say hello to someone in South America, you will get a confused reaction. However, if you try to give someone in Japan a kiss on the cheek, they may become genuinely scared. As a result of globalisation, the world has become more neutral in some ways, for example, the handshake has become the most normal way of greeting people in international formal situations. However, local differences in etiquette are still strong in 2018. In Bulgaria, despite knowing that the rest of the world does the opposite, they still use a head nod to mean ‘no’, and a head shake to mean ‘yes’. Just thinking about that makes me confused.
On the first day I arrived in India, I had a big culture-shock. I knew that the streets would be dirtier and the traffic more chaotic than in the UK, however, what I didn’t know about were some general personality traits of Indians. I couldn’t believe when I was sat in a restaurant and the waiter watched everything I did from the moment I walked in until the moment I left. Staring, apparently, is not rude in India, whereas in most parts of the world, it most certainly is. After some time in India I played a game with myself of seeing how long I could maintain eye-contact with a waiter before he would look away. Sometimes it would be over a minute! I believe now that this habit of staring is part of a lack of privacy in India. Indians often live in overcrowded places, squeeze a hundred people onto a bus made for fifty, and extended families often live in the same houses, and may often share sleeping spaces.
This line between what is public and what is private varies greatly between cultures. In India, as in many other Eastern cultures, personal space may seem minimal in public, as people are crammed into small spaces together, however, kissing, or even holding hands in public is considered taboo. Interestingly, in India, it is far more common to see two men holding hands than people of the opposite sex. Unfortunately, this is not because Indian culture respects gay rights, but because holding hands is common between friends in India and some other Asian countries.
Topics of conversation that are considered taboo change a lot as well. Generally, in the Western world, asking someone’s age is disrespectful, however, in Japan and Vietnam it is quite normal. It’s no surprise when a Chinese person asks how much money you make, either. In India it is very common to ask young people if they are married, and, if the answer is “no”, then they are not afraid to ask “why?“.
Regarding table manners, there are some things which unite most of the world. It is common on all continents to say something before eating; usually something like ‘good appetite’. Interestingly, one language where this is not said is English, in which it is more common to use the French “bon appetit”. In Japan I once made the mistake of leaving my chopsticks slightly sticking out of my rice, instead of touching the side of the plate. My Japanese friend told me “Can you imagine leaving your fork sticking out of a potato on your plate?”, and I could immediately see why what I had done was rude! One thing that most people would always consider rude is burping at the table, however, in China it is seen as a compliment to the cook! In Spain it is perfectly acceptable to say “give me the salt” without adding “please”. Try this in the UK and you will go hungry.
British drivers are equally polite – flashing someone with your lights in the UK tells the other driver that they should go first. In most other places in the world, it means “I’m coming! Get out of my way!”. When British drivers do get angry, they are likely to sound their horn. In most countries in Asia, however, it isn’t normally a sign of anger, but a sign to show that they are there. For Argentinians zebra crossings exist but don’t mean anything. Traffic lights in Bolivia are more like suggestions rather than rules. In India you should check in both directions even when you are on a one-way street.
Showing that the grass is always greener on the other side, in Europe and North America people often want to be more tanned, sunbathe when they go on holiday, and even pay to go to tanning salons, whereas in Asia the exact opposite is true. In many Asian countries women cover their skin so that they won’t get tanned, and skin-whitening cosmetics are popular. My sister was surprised when Sri Lankans told her a great compliment “What a big nose you have!“
What are parts of the etiquette in your country? Let us know in the comments section below.