UK: WORLD VIEW - TOUJOURS LA POLITESSE. - Assume at your peril that what's considered correct behaviour in one country is acceptable in another. As Richard D Lewis argues, there is no such thing as international etiquette.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Assume at your peril that what's considered correct behaviour in one country is acceptable in another. As Richard D Lewis argues, there is no such thing as international etiquette.

In our own culture we are provided with a code for behaviour. There is right and wrong, proper and improper, respectable and disreputable.

We are also fully cognisant of the particular taboos which society imposes.

A problem arises, however, when we go abroad. As a representative of our country, we would like to show what good manners we have. Unfortunately, what are good manners in one country can be seen as eccentricity or bad manners in another, as anyone who blows his nose in a crisp white handkerchief in front of a Japanese will soon find out. International travellers face a dilemma. Should they stick to what in their own country would be considered impeccable behaviour and risk making a faux pas, or imitate those they're visiting and risk making fools of themselves?

Foreigners' sincerity, and patent lack of experience in such matters, take them some way to resolving this dilemma - for a while. Europeans, Asians and Americans meet regularly on business and at conferences and manage to avoid giving offence, by and large, by being their honest selves.

Americans are genial, the French gallant, Brits reasonable, while the Japanese smile a lot. But all give the impression of sincerity and the odd dinner or business meeting can be carried off well in the euphoria generated by the host's generosity and the guest's appreciative attentiveness.

At such initial gatherings, faux pas are ignored, even considered rather charming.

The question of correct comportment in a foreign country only becomes pressing when an ongoing business relationship is involved. A protracted host-guest relationship places greater strain on the tolerance and patience thresholds of both parties as time goes by. The American habit of sprawling in chairs at business conferences may seem friendly and disarming to Brits, but it would put Germans in a constant state of unease either in their own offices or in an American's. Mexican unpunctuality may be easily forgiven once, but it becomes unacceptable if repeated. Latin loquacity may at first be engaging for Finns and Swedes, but subject it to them again and it will soon drive them up the wall.

Those who visit one foreign country regularly will have the advantage of being familiar with its etiquette. They will have greater confidence over when to imitate the ways of their host and when to behave as they would at home. Truly international travellers or businessmen are in a more difficult position.

They end up gaining only a superficial understanding of each culture they encounter. Unfortunately, there's no such thing as international etiquette. Confusingly, the same occasion demands different codes of behaviour depending on where you are in the world. In Switzerland, you should turn up to a cocktail party on time, in Argentina one hour late, in Japan 10 minutes early.

The Japanese lead the world in standards of politeness, while Asians in general display consistent courtesy to foreigners and to each other.

In Europe social ease fluctuates from Spanish warmth and Italian flexibility to Swiss pedantry and German righteousness, though the French are probably the most formal of the Europeans. The Anglo-Saxons, along with the Scandinavians, are probably the least formal societies in the late 20th century. But the problem with observing the manners of others lies not so much in whether to behave formally or informally (this can be quickly regulated) but to know what the taboos are in certain regions. Often no one will bother to tell you about them until it's too late. For example, how would one know that sending yellow flowers to a woman signifies, in some European countries, that she has been unfaithful to her husband? And in Japan, how could you possibly tell that the correct thing to do for a bereaved neighbour is to send them money in a sealed envelope? This custom feels uncomfortable for Westerners and, to complicate the situation, bereaved Japanese often send you and your partner gifts in appreciation of your gesture.

On the face of it the deeper you delve, the harder it gets. Perhaps the business globe-trotter can manage in the short term by following his or her own well-tried norms and retaining an identity. There is no harm in imitating to flatter if he or she wishes, but the main rule to follow is to avoid doing things which could irritate our foreign friends.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime