Expat Survival Guide : The Etiquette Danger Zone


The Etiquette Danger Zone


Nice to Meet You

On a recent business trip to South Korea, Microsoft founder Bill Gates met President Park Geun-hye and committed a huge faux-pas, without the slightest inkling. He gave his host a ‘one-handed shake’ and sparked a local media sensation for his rudeness.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As in Vietnam and some other countries in the region, handshakes should be given with both hands clasping. Moreover, Gates kept one hand in his pocket, which inferred that he was ‘hiding something’. The Chinese often simply nod or bow rather than shake hands, being generally reluctant to make body contact with strangers. When introduced to a group, you may find yourself greeted with applause; it’s polite to respond in the same manner. In Russia and the other former Soviet states, don’t offer your hand over the threshold of a door; it’s viewed as extremely unlucky.

Across most of the Far Eastern region, it’s also polite to present objects with both hands: certainly to be remembered when passing a business card (also present with the print facing the other person). Treat others’ business cards with respect: when in doubt, accept them with two hands (or just your right in the Middle East), make a small show of looking at them and place carefully in your upper jacket pocket or wallet / handbag. The card ‘represents’ your colleague so to handle it in an off-hand manner can only be seen as a slight. It’s a good rule of thumb where ever you travel.

Excruciatingly obvious:  have your business card translated into an appropriate second language on the reverse.



Small gifts are generally always a good idea and, in most cases, it’s wise to wrap them with care; a well-chosen container and wrapping can be as important as the gift itself in showing respect for your hosts. In many countries, expensive gifts to government officials may be interpreted as an attempt at bribery, so beware. Independent businessmen are usually another matter; the best policy is to match in value ‘like with like’ (phone ahead and check). Gifts from your own country are always a better bet giftthan simply purchasing whatever is available locally, indicating more thought and care. However, gift giving customs vary widely from country to country, so it’s essential to check well beforehand. You may also find that it’s the norm to ‘refuse’ a gift at first offering and it’s not always polite to open a gift straight away.

Excruciatingly obvious: avoid taking a bottle of wine when visiting Muslim hosts.


Food and Drink

All offers of tea or coffee should be accepted, representing hospitality between host and guest. Whichever you are offered, do accept (rather than asking for coffee rather than tea or vice versa).

In such countries as China, Taiwan and Japan, it’s acceptable to slurp noodles, since this is supposed to improve the flavour.  Treat your chopsticks as an extension of your fingers – so don’t point with them, wave them about or tap them on your bowl. Also, don’t use them to skewer, or dig for, particular morsels. Always place your chopsticks to the side (on the rest) rather than leaving them sticking out of your bowl (this will disturb your hosts, as the gesture will remind them of a particular ritual to remember the dead).

You should also feel free to lift your bowl towards your face in the Far East; leaving it on the table while you eat is thought rather lazy. Don’t be surprised at belching in Taiwan, where  spitting bones onto the table or floor is also considered to be more hygienic than removing them with fingers. Never place bones cigaretteor seeds in your rice bowl (pop them on the table if a plate is not provided).

Excruciatingly obvious: don’t light up a cigarette at the table, unless your host does so first (also, the Chileans have a saying for those who neglect to share – ‘Did you learn to smoke in jail?’)


It’s All in the Eyes

Eye contact between men and women should be avoided in strict Muslim countries, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Between men, eye contact is acceptable as long as it is not prolonged; it is best to only occasionally look someone directly in the eyes. In fact, prolonged eye contact is considered rude in a great many countries, including Japan and Indonesia.

In South Korea, junior businesspeople should avoid direct eye contact with those in senior positions.

In Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, there is a fine balance: extended eye contact is deemed as challenging (staring the other down) while avoiding it is seen as shifty (as if you are ashamed of yourself).sunglasses

In South America, as in most of Europe, direct eye contact is seen as a sign of genuine intention and openness. The Australians, New Zealanders, British and Americans are extremely relaxed, using their eyes expressively and smiling readily.

Excruciatingly obvious: take off your sunglasses before greeting someone 


Small Talk

It hardly needs to be said that politics and religion are best avoided. Close questioning about someone’s family can also be a no-no in stricter Muslim countries, where family matters are viewed as private and not a subject for casual discussion. In India, Malaysia, Turkey and China, you may be asked about your marital status, age or income. Meanwhile, don’t be offended by Argentine humour, which may mildly attack your clothing or weight. Needless to say, you aren’t obliged to answer in full.

If your Japanese friend is smiling and laughing at your stories it may indicate their discomfort rather than happiness.

Excruciatingly obvious: don’t stare at a woman’s chest, even if it is ‘on display’.



In China and Japan, avoid using the number ‘four’ (such as raising four fingers or giving a gift in a multiple of four), as it has connotations of death; the colour white dog yellow tiehas the same association, so put aside white dresses and don’t present white white flowersbouquets. In Malaysia, yellow clothing is reserved for royalty (many of whom are involved in business). 

Only present odd numbers of flowers in former Soviet states (even numbers are for funerals) – or play safe with a large ‘uncountable’ bouquet.

Excruciatingly obvious: don’t show amusement at someone else’s discomfort, however illogical their behaviour may seem.


Physical Gestures

Across the Middle East and Asia, remember not to stand with your hands on your hips. It may be seen as provocative: a challenge or a sign of anger. In addition, use your right hand to eat and touch people.

In Eastern countries, such as Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as Turkey and India, don’t move objects with your feet or point at or touch anyone with your foot. Meanwhile, the head is sacred, so don’t be tempted to pat or stroke children’s hair. If you drop currency bearing the ruler’s head, pick it up promptly and dust off reverently.

The American style ‘A-Ok’ gesture with thumb and forefinger creating a circle is considered vulgar in many South American countries. Meawhile, in Turkey, it’s used to negatively indicate that another person is homosexual.

In the Philippines and Japan, as well as South America, beckoning someone to approach by offering your hand palm upward is viewed as a ‘sexual invitation’: clearly offensive. Instead, place your palm down and make a scratching motion.

nose pickerIn Japan, blowing your nose in public is frowned upon, so make every effort to pardon yourself and leave the room. In addition, nose blowing is conducted into a tissue, which is immediately thrown away. To blow your nose, leaving hanakuso (‘nose s***t’) and then replace your handkerchief in your pocket will fill your hosts with horror. The same is true across several other countries, including Turkey and Korea. Avoid sniffing and nose-picking too.

Excruciatingly obvious: wear clean socks (and without holes) to Toesocksavoid embarrassment if asked to remove shoes on entering someone’s home, a mosque or a traditional restaurant.



Avoiding Jail Time

No kissing, hugging or, even, holding hands if you’re living in certain Middle Eastern states, such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia; you may be flouting local law with such public displays of affection, risking a spell in jail. A great many other nationalities find it discomforting to witness physical affection between couples (seen as ‘sexual’): best to avoid altogether.

Be aware that bringing in DVDs, books or magazines with ‘sexiness’ in them could also be prohibited. Don’t land yourself in trouble through ignorance. Check what’s applicable in your host country. Needless to say, being scantily clad is also likely to land you in hot water (with a fine). Err on the side of modesty – unless you are in Brazil or Russia: among the few countries where women are expected to dress with great femininity in all situations.

Several nations have laws prohibiting the import of material deemed ‘offensive’ to the state. Materials criticising the ruling regime are, unsurprisingly, a no-no in most countries.

Excruciatingly obvious: don’t bring ‘Borat’ DVDs or books to Kazakhstan.


Do Your Research

Of course, with the best will in the world, and plenty of background reading, you may still become nervous and simply forget which behaviour to avoid on your travels. In most cases, you’ll be forgiven readily, your ‘rudeness’ accepted as simple ignorance by your generous hosts.

It would be impossible to offer a definitive set of ‘rules’ for any culture or people, as so many nuances exist. However, the following sites offer a more in-depth look at cultural etiquette: essential reading before your travels.








Survival Guide

Part One          It’s Life…  But Not as You Knew It

Part Two         Saying Farewell to Friends and Family

Part Three       Infidelity and Relationships on the Rocks

Part Four         Tears and Tantrums  

Part Five          Staying Safe

Part Seven      When Disaster Strikes