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Keep Up with Local Customs

You needn’t be a diplomat or foreign secretary to correctly assume that one country’s version of proper conduct is another country’s faux pas.  When traveling to foreign lands, one is encouraged to be a polite guest, as a guest you indeed are.  But while most befitting etiquette is universal (saying please and thank you would certainly come to mind), some countries have their own particular differences when it comes to good manners.

Here are a few examples of what may be deemed, depending upon your own origin, a blooper, gaffe, flub, transgression or social blunder.

When visiting the home of a Chinese individual or family, bringing them a small gift is appropriate. However, it is considered bad luck to give clocks as gifts to others, especially to older relatives. And although a lovely idea in other countries, pears do not make great gifts in China, especially on the 15th day of July, as you would be wishing the recipient a happy separation or divorce. Thus, pears should never be given to couples. It would be wise to avoid all pears in China.
When dining, the Chinese host who sits closest to the tea, beer, wine or any type of beverage is the one who pours for others. Like many customs, it is first offered to the most senior person at the table. You, as a guest, should not pour your own drink.
Using chopsticks requires a few pointers, and mostly “don’ts.” Don’t point with them, or gesture with them, or play with them in any fashion. Also, don’t lick them as you would a spoon or use them to stir any dish of food.


A glass of wine half-filled is considered appropriate when dining out or at a dinner party. It’s considered bad manners to fill a wine glass to the brim.
When dining, remember to keep your hands above the table.  Resting both hands in your lap is not appropriate.
When slicing cheese, don't cut off the point (or "nose" as it is called).
If you normally like coffee or tea with your dessert, you should know that it is customary in France to order these beverages after dessert has been eaten.
Eating on the street or “on the run” has generally been considered gauche in France, although you do see people nowadays drinking coffee while walking.


Similar to France, it is appropriate to keep your hands visible while dining. It is thought to be bad manners to rest them out of sight on your lap.
Also similar to France, most Italians do not have coffee before or with a meal, only after, as it is seen as a digestive.  And for those cappuccino lovers, order it only in the morning as you will show your naïveté in all things Italian if you order it after dinner. Order espresso instead.
As is customary in many countries if visiting someone’s home, do bring a small gift such as flowers or chocolates. It is appropriate to giftwrap them, but not in black and gold paper, which is used for funerals. Along those same lines, don’t bring chrysanthemums as a gift, as they are reserved for funeral services.

When traveling in Greece, it is fine to say the word “OK,” but don’t make the signal using your hand and finger. It is considered indecent to do so.And it’s OK (spoken, not signaled) to be 30 minutes late to someone’s home if you are invited for dinner. It’s actually the norm and you would be perceived as a conscientious guest and punctual.


  1. Helpful information! I found out it was rude to sit in a chair with one leg crossed over the other in Turkey. It's not polite to show people the bottom of your foot!

  2. Thanks Cheryl! And who would have known (not me) about the custom you discovered while visiting Turkey? Anyone else have some advice to pass along to their fellow travelers?


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