Stepping off a plane into a new and unfamiliar paradise can be the best feeling in the world. It’s already paid for, the journey went without a hitch, and the exciting plans are sprawled out in front of you. “Now I can relax” you optimistically think to yourself, glazing over the fact that trying not to offend the locals is a minefield.
We’re monitored before we even utter our first stumbling phrasebook words in a foreign land. Although in England, we are by no means forthcoming in our friendliness towards others, it is actually rude and considered “too intimate” to smile at strangers in Russia. Moreover, in Vietnam a friendly or jokey crossing of the fingers would have quite the opposite effect; far from a good luck symbol, they say it resembles a “feature” of the female body (now WHAT could that be..?) And, it is therefore the equivalent of flipping the bird. So watch out, Lotto, you’re not going to sell many tickets with that obscenity! Of all things, an unexpected sneeze is-snot okay in Japan, and would warrant a glare of disgust rather than an (admittedly half-hearted) “bless-you”.
Even when you’ve finally found someone to chat to or something to do, you’re still not out of hot water. In Germany, standing with your hands in your pockets whilst talking to someone is very rude, as is chewing gum during a conversation in Italy. Tipping is considered an insult in Japan, and would therefore not be met with the gratitude that you may have expected. Alas, forget everything your mother told you! Burping after a meal in China is encouraged and is the sign of a good meal. Meanwhile, in The Netherlands you are expected to sit in the front seat of a taxi; the driver is your chum, not your chauffeur.
*Deep breath*. Kissing is a whole other kettle of fish: two in Spain and Italy; three in The Netherlands; one for someone the same age in Belgium, or three for an elder; and between one and four in France depending on the region (…maybe avoid here). The Flemish don’t make contact, the Spanish touch cheeks with a kissing noise, and Italians make no noise…
The Germans just shake hands.
Understanding the social norms of every country is worthy of a degree, and a few slip-ups are guaranteed. But what better practice is there than being British? With our over-using of the word “sorry”, compulsive need to queue for everything, and extensive range of context-dependent laughs, if you can survive the English public, then you can survive anywhere.