In Ecuador greeting with a kiss on the cheek is very common. If you don’t kiss them on the cheek or pull away when they try to kiss you its very rude. I know from experience. Its like in America if you don’t shake someone’s hand that they already extended out to you.
An example of what I found out in Brasil: I was in a restaurant with friends, and my nose was running (spicy food, you know 😉 ). In my own country (Holland) the polite thing to do is to blow your nose while facing away from the table. When I did that, I received surprised comments from my friends. Apparantly it was better to just snort it up and blow your nose later, and blowing your nose at the table is considered quite rude. How was I supposed to know?
In general, don’t be afraid to make these kind of mistakes. As written above: a smile and a sorry will go a long way, people usually totally understand you are not from where they are. If you have the chance, ask people in a conversation about these things to be a bit more prepared. Otherwise, follow others in what they do and you’ll be fine. Embrace the differences!
I’ve found regardless of destination, that people are far less offended by cultural faux pas-ses then by behavior that would be rude anywhere. In India, I’ve accidentally paid with my left hand, and I’ve seen the person in return get a little uncomfortable, and accept the money with his right. What I did, however, is just apologize and ask, at which point he told me what was out of step for the country, and we both got a good laugh about it.
Rather than trying to memorize a big list of what is cultural weird in any given location, can I simply suggest a few general points?
Don’t be any louder than others around you – especially if you are an American. (I have been mistaken for a Canadian many times, simply because I set my decibel level just a hair softer than what’s going on around me, and think twice before I feel the need to add something to a conversation. I take that mistake as a compliment.)
If possible, observe a social interaction before doing it yourself. Unsure if you should be haggling? Look to see what others do. Unsure what the customary greeting is? Look to see how the shopkeeper or taxi driver or whatever interacts with you.
Be quick with “I’m sorry” if you make a mistake. It’s polite in any language.
Think about how your actions will be perceived – not just in the obvious Golden Rule terms, but also if your action elevates your status or the attention due you. Being obsequious can also be obnoxious, but just try things with an air of humility.
Be ready to laugh at yourself. A smile, a thank you, and a good-natured “D’oh!” go along way towards making any social interaction correct.
Learn Hello, Please, Thank You, You’re welcome, and “Excuse me, sir, could you please tell me where the toilet is?” in the main language of every country you visit. If the only phrase you know is “Do you speak English?” you won’t get far at all. On the other hand, I remember going through the airport in Turkey, knowing only Merhaba (Hello), and asking the lady behind the counter how to pronounce the turkish word for thank you. You would have thought I had bought her a dozen roses and a box of chocolates from her response.
Finally, step back, relax, and have fun. If you accidentally offend, but have a good natured air about you, just about any cultural faux pas will be forgiven. If you’re a diplomat, study the protocol, to be sure, but for everybody else, just make the mistake, learn, and move on.
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