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Durban - Any left-handed boy with a mild stutter, red hair, freckles and an Australian accent sent to school in England need never learn much about racism and cultural insults.
But in Muslim countries and most of Africa and India, using your left hand to eat is a no-no.
There are other ways to be insulting in India: don’t give a present made of leather, for instance, since cows are sacred to many Indians.
And make sure you know the possible consequences if you wink at someone in India – it’s a sexual come-on.
In the Philippines, where I once had the pleasure of interviewing the wonderfully named Cardinal Sin, never refer to your hostess as “hostess”. It means “prostitute”.
When I relieved a sick colleague in Tokyo for three months I had to be warned: never blow your nose into your handkerchief or a tissue in public. The Japanese word for the product of a sneeze is nose-ordure – putting it politely – and the idea of carrying it in your pocket is disgusting.
The Japanese have an elaborate ritual when exchanging business cards. Always receive the business card in both hands and, nodding respectfully, read it carefully. Put it in your wallet or handbag – never just shove it in a pocket or write on it.
Despite this acquired expertise, I’ve learned quite a few more precautionary facts from the latest Lonely Planet travel guide – the oldest and biggest still prospering, first published in 1972 in Melbourne – which carries a list of travel etiquette do’s and don’ts.
Giving flowers? Saying it with flowers can be unlucky or downright offensive in some countries. Carnations are associated with funerals and mourning in Germany, Poland and Sweden.
Chrysanthemums are funereal in Belgium, Italy, France, Spain and Turkey. And in China or Indonesia it’s bad luck to give odd numbers of flowers. But an odd-numbered bouquet is lucky in Germany, India, Russia and Turkey. Don’t try to figure that one out; just observe it.
And in all Europe, no matter how freezing it is, always take off your glove before shaking hands.
In Argentina it’s rude to ask people what they do for a living – instead, you wait for them to bring it up in conversation. But in Israel everyone is interested in frank personal details, so be prepared not only for queries on your occupation, but also the nitty-gritty of “how much money do you make?”
Dining out? In Spain, don’t wait for the bill to arrive – you must ask for it. Waiters think it’s rude to bring it before you’ve asked for it. And in India thanking someone for a meal, no matter how much you have enjoyed it, is seen as a form of payment and may be taken as an insult.
I also had to retrain myself in Muslim countries not to cross and recross legs while sitting in airports and other public waiting places. It lifts one of your feet to an angle at which – no matter how unintentionally – the sole of your shoe may seem to be pointed towards someone, a gross insult.
In Asia, in all Buddhist countries, never pat a child on the head for it is sacred.
A cheerful thumbs-up sign can get you into deep trouble in Egypt and Iran – it’s a very rude gesture.
And hailing a taxi in Greece with an outspread hand, the halt or stop sign, means you may be in for a long wait. Use the beckoning hand signal with your palm towards you. Palm towards the taxi is considered offensive.
When toasting, look your German or Scandinavian drinking partner steadily and firmly in the eye while you drink. In Russia it is polite to slug down the vodka in one gulp – though don’t do it too often, I learned after attending diplomatic receptions when the Cold War was at its chilliest. - Sunday Tribune