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Modern Manners Tutorial III: The International Traveler’s *cough* “Diplomatic” Conversational Guide via [Concierge.com]



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Etiquette 101: Smart Talk

by Boris Kachka

First Do No Harm…Every country has its subtle taboos and unspoken
codes, but when you get down to it, it’s what you say, not how you say
it, that really gets you in the door (or kicked out). Our guide to the
most dangerous topics around the world rates them according to our own
alert system, from highest to lowest risk, followed by a few safe
subjects that might put you back on solid ground.

Download a PDF version of Smart
In a part of the world where
nearly every facet of life has become wrapped up in politics and
religion, keeping things personal and avoiding the global is more than
just a way of being polite: For both tourists and residents, it can be a
coping strategy. Even naive attempts to find common ground (“You have
Christians too!”) can easily backfire. Not that residents from Morocco
to Israel to Jordan don’t love a good debate, but it might be a
life-and-death argument in which the opposing sides can’t even agree on
common premises. Entering with an open mind and a do-no-harm approach is
essential, and in many cases a focus on the simple things (friends,
food, family) can create an oasis of peaceful coexistence.

Absolutely verboten:
Anything having to do with the position of Jews in the world; you may
hear conspiracy theories.
Radioactive: The lack of
democracy in the country; the prevalence of corruption; and the threat
of religious resistance.
Definitely not: Suggesting
peace with Israel as a way to build bridges might lead to a backlash;
the truce is much less popular with the populace than it is with the
Not a good idea: Terrorism and its
impact on stability and tourism.
Ill-advised: It’s
best to avoid bringing up the Coptic Christians—an underclass here—even
in terms of trying to find common ground.
Talk away!
The country’s cultural relics and historical importance—or simply steer
the conversation back to business. 

Israelis certainly discuss the Palestinian
“situation,” but a certain exhaustion has set in. Starting out with
accusations of ill treatment will not get you very far. Discussing it
even with Palestinians might lead to weary responses.
Referring to the security fence under construction as “the wall” would
be considered a loaded statement.
Definitely not:
Any mention of racial divisions—not just between Israelis and
Palestinians but also between European and Middle Eastern Jews—should be
approached carefully, if at all.
Not a good idea:
The assumption that Israelis are religious, or questions about levels of
belief. There is a great deal of diversity of religious commitment as
well as some conflict between religious and secular Israelis.
Asking exactly how someone served in the army (foot soldiers versus
Intelligence Corps) might bring up class issues.
Talk away!
Israel as a thriving democracy; the quality and freshness of the food.


Absolutely verboten: Any criticism of the king or
inquiries into the royal family.
Homosexuality—many Moroccans will assert that it doesn’t exist here.
The fraught history of the Jews who used to live here,
which challenges the notion of Morocco as a tolerant place.
a good idea:
Comparing the status of women in Morocco with
Western women, or even questions such as, “Why is your wife not coming
Ill-advised: The Israeli-Palestinian
conflict—not a great subject, but less charged than in other Middle
Eastern states.
Talk away! The fine cuisine; and
the peaceful and tolerant atmosphere.

Honor killings, which have been in the news lately
and are a source of shame for many Jordanians (and you may not want to
engage the ones who approve).
Criticizing Islam—the subject is just as sacrosanct here as in Egypt or
Saudi Arabia.
Definitely not: Saying anything
negative about the kingdom—which is illegal anyway.
Not a
good idea:
The Palestinian situation, but especially the
refugees in Jordan who don’t have full citizenship or sovereignty
(despite the fact that together with Iraqi refugees they outnumber
Ill-advised: The historic treatment of
bedouins—although it’s fine to document their many past achievements
(slightly analogous to Native Americans in the United States).
The country’s relatively high level of development; and
the queen’s beauty and good works.


Absolutely verboten: Modern-day racism—people like
to think of themselves as having moved completely beyond the apartheid
Radioactive: The situation in Zimbabwe; and
South Africa’s lack of intervention against Robert Mugabe.
Former president Thabo Mbeki‘s controversial (and
counterfactual) views on HIV and AIDS.
Not a good idea:
Corruption charges against Jacob Zuma; and general political
Ill-advised: Criticisms of the
government’s performance in the post-apartheid era.
Nelson Mandela; equal rights; and relative prosperity

Along in the Muslim World

No matter what brings you to the
Middle East, navigating the religious and political taboos requires
following a unique set of rules that apply more or less across the

ISLAM There are ways to discuss the
religion while in no way implying that it’s fallible. Lindsay and Wes
Heinlein, who served in Jordan with the Peace Corps and have traveled
throughout the Middle East, developed their own way of discussing the
issue. “Although Islam is not an actively proselytizing religion,
concerned folks will want to know you’re going to the same heaven as
they are, just as in America,” says Lindsay. “Agree that Christianity,
Judaism, and Islam are all religions of the book,’ and then change the

ISRAEL It’s too easy to get wrapped up
in defending against the various conspiracy theories that abound about
the country. If confronted with one, try to change the subject (family
is a favorite) and perhaps move toward an agreement that the governments
are at fault. Many Middle Easterners will happily agree that Jews per
se are not to blame. But all in all, it’s a sticky subject.

Verbally praising another man’s wife or
daughter—especially complimenting her appearance—is inadvisable. Wes
remembers playing foosball with a Jordanian at a center for the
disabled; sometimes they would play not for prizes but for “honor,” and
Wes once said, “Let’s play for your sister’s honor.” The man would not
talk to him for months.

FOR WOMEN Mentioning
relationships outside of marriage may not earn you public reprimands,
but it will often result in a lack of respect. Some Western women even
refer to “fiancés” back home and call male friends “brothers” in order
to fend off prying questions.

often done on the sly, and mostly by men. For women, discussing drinking
is inadvisable. “In tourist areas, it’s fine for women to drink in
public,” says Lindsay, “just not to talk about it the next day, as in,
I got so bombed!’ ”

complimenting someone’s belongings will result in being offered those
objects as gifts. It’s such an ingrained tradition that locals have even
jokingly offered their children to the Heinleins. This also means that a
compliment directed toward your own possessions may come with a similar

PORK In predominantly Muslim countries,
even non-Muslims do not eat pork. It is considered unclean, and no
amount of persuasion will change anyone’s mind—so it isn’t really worth
bringing up the subject. You won’t find any pork regardless of what you

Several quirks of geography and
economic development have shaped this hemisphere’s sensitive areas (we
shouldn’t say “taboos”; compared with much of the world, it’s a pretty
easygoing place). Catholicism is more deeply rooted in some countries
than in others, and very liberal nations (Brazil) coexist with others
that consider themselves the peak of propriety (Chile). And then, of
course, there is Latin America’s proximity to the United States and the
desire to demonstrate equal standing. Finally, in the case of Canada,
there’s the desire to prove itself a bit apart from the noisy neighbor
who insists on dominating so much of the conversation.

Absolutely verboten:
The Dirty War and the “disappeared” of the 1970s, definitely still a
deep trauma in the nation’s psyche, are not to be referenced casually.
The Peróns, whose legacy is much debated. You never know how an
Argentine will feel about them.
Definitely not: The
Falklands War may seem like an amusing ’80s footnote, even to Brits—but
certainly not to the nation that lost.
Not a good idea:
The economic crises of the past several years, for which many hold the
International Monetary Fund and American policies responsible.
Lumping Argentina in with all of Latin America (many Argentines believe
that they stand apart from the rest of the continent).
Argen­tina as unique within the continent; its
prosperous past (if not present). And most middle-class people have
therapists and love to talk about them. 

Impugning Canada’s national health-care system.
Canadians are fiercely proud of it. In a television contest, viewers
voted the founder of the system the greatest Canadian hero.
Remarking how similar Canada is to the United States can be tantamount
to calling it the fifty-first state.
Definitely not:
Any reliance on a few stereotypes (e.g., making fun of how they say,
“Eh?”) may unearth the sarcasm beneath their (stereotypical) politeness.

Not a good idea: Be careful in discussing Toronto
and how wonderful it is; many regional Canadians, especially out west,
don’t like it.
Ill-advised: Don’t mistake
politeness for the casual oversharing so common in the United States.
Canadians, like Europeans, will bristle if you get too personal too
Talk away! Hockey—they really do love it as
much as we think they do. The runner-up in the Canadian-hero contest was
a hockey coach turned sportscaster.

Dwelling on money, whether fussing over how to split
the check (“People will think you’re greedy,” says Brazilian-American
Paulo Padilha) or asking what someone does for a living.
Bringing up the level of violence or constantly asking if it’s safe to
go out. There surely are many problems, but it’s not something to harp
Definitely not: Padilha cites the rule, “No
politics or football at the dinner table.” As a foreigner, you can bring
up soccer—politics, not so much.
Not a good idea:
Making light of Catholicism: Brazil may be a fairly liberal country, but
even an urban sophisticate may be a deeply devout Catholic—no Vatican
jokes, please.
Ill-advised: Commenting crudely on
women, which can get you into hot water as a gringo.
Music is universally beloved, so praising Brazilian song,
or even asking if your acquaintance can recommend an artist, is always a
good idea.

The dictatorships of either Augusto Pinochet (on the
right) or Salvador Allende (on the left), about whom opinions are
passionate and vary widely.
Radioactive: How great a
time you had in Argentina. Chileans can be a bit touchy about their
internationally acclaimed neighbor to the east . . .
. . . And their other neighbors—Peru and Bolivia—with
whom they had territorial clashes in the nineteenth century.
a good idea:
Sex or toilet humor, without prompting—despite
its modern gloss, Chile is one of the more conservative countries in
Latin America.
Ill-advised: Pisco as a Peruvian
drink. Though it really is, the Chileans consider the liqueur to be a
source of native pride.
Talk away! Chile’s rolling
hills; its wineries; and the cleanliness and modernity of Santiago.


Absolutely verboten: Crime and corruption: It’s
sure to be a topic of discussion, but it’s not something you should
bring up in a cavalier way.
Radioactive: As in
Spain, bullfighting is a matter of cultural pride, so stumping for
animal rights may not win you many friends.
Definitely not:
Immigration is a fact of life, but the United States’ policy on
illegals is a sore point—and sometimes a humiliating one.
a good idea:
Mexico is still a strongly Catholic country,
which means religious and social questions are best approached
delicately, particularly in rural areas.
In general, getting down to business before coffee, even during a quick
business lunch, is considered rude.
Talk away!
Always talk about marriage or family. Knowledge of Mexico’s cultural
heritage and food (not Tex-Mex) will go a long way, as will familiarity
with such family rites as the quinceañera.
It’s likely you won’t
find more diversity of political systems and social mores—to say nothing
of complex colonial histories—than on the largest continent. Here
you’ll encounter rigid cultural rules in thriving democracies (like
Japan) and no-go conversational zones mandated by law (China). The
prevalence of the concept of “face” in East Asian cultures also means
that arguments have the potential to threaten the very foundation of a

Indigenous rights, this being a country that shares
our sordid history as a colonizer (only it’s a more fraught topic Down
Radioactive: Don’t bring up the
settled-by-convicts thing. “It’s old, not appreciated, and not entirely
accurate,” says Donna Thomas of New Zealand Travel.
Gay rights: Australia’s closer to the United States than
Europe on these issues, with a variety of opinions, and there is a
federal ban against same-sex marriage.
Not a good idea:
Don’t inquire too deeply into personal wealth or money matters—on this,
Australians can be surprisingly reserved.
Confusing New Zealand with Australia. The differences are important to
both, especially to Kiwis.
Talk away! Australian
football; and the casual openness of its people.


Absolutely verboten: The “three T’s”—Tibet,
Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square. These are rarely discussed and would be
hard to bring up without sounding presumptuous about “internal” matters.

Radioactive: Relations between China and Japan.
Never compare them; in fact, avoid saying anything too positive about
Definitely not: “How many children do you
have?” With the one-child policy, the answer is either obvious or best
kept on the down-low.
Not a good idea: Religious
freedom or human rights, whether they apply to the Falun Gong or the
Ill-advised: The Cultural Revolution. The
Chinese do discuss the period, but it’s best to avoid asking someone
what he or she was doing at the time; people could easily have been on
either side of the campaign.
Talk away! The success
of the Olympics and the speed of development.


Absolutely verboten: Pakistan’s status versus that
of India (aside from the border dispute, there is competition for aid
and favor from the West—a balance of power that shifted after 9/11).
Ethnic riots and the partitions of the past. India jealously guards its
status as a multi­ethnic democracy.
Definitely not:
Inquiring whether a marriage was arranged—or simply assuming it was.
There are gradations of how “arranged” a marriage is, and you might miss
the subtleties.
Not a good idea: Joking about call
centers or any of the results of outsourcing.
Class hierarchies, economic inequality, or the caste system. Even
innocently asking to help out a servant in the kitchen can lead to
Talk away! Openness and diversity; the
growing economy; and the fact that India is “the world’s largest

World War II and Japan’s role in it, particularly the
way it treated its neighbors.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a source not just of trauma but of shame. Many
still hide the effects of radiation, and, even in those cities, the bomb
is almost never discussed.
Definitely not:
Treatment of certain outcast groups and minorities—and Japan’s general
lack of interest in accepting immigrants.
Not a good idea:
Discussing religion in any great detail. Many Japanese practice
Buddhism and/or Shinto, but they rarely talk about it, even with their
Ill-advised: Remarking on the fact that
women seem to be serving men in so many situations. It’s deeply
ingrained, and you’ll only cause a loss of face.
Talk away!
All the ultramodern designs and conveniences; and the overall health of
the people.

The Korean War and World War II—there is very little
hand-wringing or discussion of past (or even present) political strife.

Radioactive: Don’t fixate on the similarities
among the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. It violates not only political
taboos (especially Japan’s treatment of Korea during World War II) but
the Korean notion of ethnic and cultural uniqueness.
Maligning the government. There’s limited freedom of the
press and not much of a tradition of political criticism.
a good idea:
Asking where someone went to college. It happens
to be an accurate (too accurate) indicator of social class.
Assuming familiarity with someone who’s older than you (by using his or
her first name, for instance).
Talk away! Before
getting down to business, it’s not only polite but mandatory to inquire
about someone’s age, marital status, and number of children.


Absolutely verboten: Bad-mouthing Ho Chi Minh:
Even in the south, the Communist liberator is widely admired.
Saying the Vietnam War didn’t go far enough, or that it was “lost.”
There is by no means even a private consensus that the country would
have been better off had the United States won.
Comparing the Vietnamese, favorably or otherwise, to their
counterparts among refugee communities stateside. Their worldviews are
often vastly different.
Not a good idea: Asking
about prostitution in Southeast Asia. There is much, much less here than
in Thailand—something they’d very much like tourists to know.
Asking too many personal questions. According to travel specialist
Sandy Ferguson of Asia Desk, the Vietnamese a“` re relatively reticent
compared with others on the peninsula.
Talk away!
Vietnam’s hard-fought independence and its (relatively) successful
modernization since the seventies.

Disparaging comments about the royal family—or even
probing questions, like those of succession.
The recent coup against its not-very-popular elected leader. The
situation is still tense and unstable, and thus politics are best
Definitely not: Prostitution as a local
problem. Thais will discuss it but generally blame it on Western sex
Not a good idea: There is a significant
Indian minority that arrived decades ago as guest workers, whom some
“native” Thais tend to dismiss (Arab visitors are also a touchy
Ill-advised: Buddhism is taken very
seriously in Thailand. Do not disparage or make light of it—or purport
to know all about it because you read a book or two.
It’s best to emphasize Thailand’s relatively prosperous
and democratic position in the region, despite recent setbacks.
Its current liberalism and stability
notwithstanding, the peaceful continent still has some historical
skeletons in its closet. And while it’s hardly a powder keg like the
Middle East on the issue of American power, those were certainly a rough
eight years we’ve just gotten through. Cultural presumptions continue
to rear their head across the American-European divide; wade into them

Absolutely verboten:
Talking money. Wages are almost never a topic of conversation, even in
vague terms. Any long conversation about prices of real estate, schools,
etc., is probably not a good idea.
Joking about France’s surrender to the Germans during the war—not really
a laughing matter.
Definitely not: Asking a woman
how old she is is even worse in France than in other parts of the world.

Not a good idea: Overly detailed discussions of
dietary restrictions or requirements, which will make you look
unreasonably fussy and “American.”
Ill-advised: The
immigrant underclass and, conversely, the anti-immigrant right-wing
movements (and how many votes they’ve gotten in a few past elections).
The food, of course; and the other glories of French

Hitler and the Holocaust. Some will talk about it
incessantly, some will avoid it—but let them initiate the discussion.
The Israeli situation is a frequent subject of debate here, but one
they’re understandably reticent about discussing with foreign visitors.
Talking too much about shopping or bargains may not
offend anyone, but it might bore them or mark you as a typical American
Definitely not: Don’t conflate
northern and southern Germany, which are considered very different; and
try to study up a bit on the geography and culture.
Excessive small talk is not appreciated; Germans can become
uncomfortable if made to discuss the weather for 15 minutes.
Demonstrating decent knowledge of the nation or
language, or even global social issues, will get you far.


Absolutely verboten: The junta in the late sixties
and early seventies, which many Greeks still think was backed by the
United States (Americans believe we just failed to stop it).
Cyprus: Its invasion by Turkey and its division are definitely
sensitive subjects.
Definitely not: Tensions with
Turkey in general, and whether the United States is evenhanded enough
(or too evenhanded) in mediating those conflicts.
Not a good
Kosovar independence, which many Greeks opposed. They
make less noise about it than the Russians but were closer to the
Ill-advised: Minority absorption and
immigrant rights—you’d sound holier than thou if you brought it up.
Greece as the cradle of Western civilization; and the
leisurely pace of life.

Northern Ireland. There is peace, but often a peace
built on sidestepping the issue. “We’re very good at avoiding things,”
says Irish-born novelist Colum McCann.
Religion, particularly Protestantism versus Catholicism as it bears on
the issue above.
Definitely not: Bashing the
British won’t get you far—it’s a cliché. Ireland’s had a rough history
but moved beyond it in many ways.
Not a good idea:
Don’t call yourself Irish if your great-grandfather was from there. It’s
fine to talk about your roots but not to presume permanent cultural
Ill-advised: Sex is no longer a no-go
zone in Ireland, though among the older generation you might feel the
lingering effects of a long history of Catholic prudery.
So long as you avoid politics, the Irish love Americans.
Talk about the countries’ commonalities and about Ireland’s rapid
economic growth in recent years.

Any mention of atrocities committed in Chechnya or
Radioactive: Defense of American actions
in Serbia, which Russians consider evidence of a double standard when
accused of human rights violations.
Definitely not:
The implication that Russia is not as advanced as other Western
countries, politically or otherwise.
Not a good idea:
Putin is sometimes criticized, but anything breezily dismissive can
easily draw defensive protests.
General liberal pronouncements against sexism or racism risk arousing
the accusation of political correctness.
Talk away!
Russia’s entrepreneurial streak; its centrality in the world; and its
cultural treasures (literature, music, and art).


Absolutely verboten: The Armenian genocide—writers
have been prosecuted just for saying it took place.
Anything in support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—or about
Kurdistan in general.
Definitely not: Anything
negative about Atatürk, the founder of modern secular Turkey.
a good idea:
George W. Bush. You’ll hear an earful, and they
might even bring him up, but it’s best to just nod even if you don’t
agree on how awful he was.
Ill-advised: Saying
something—even positive—about someone’s wife or mother can be taken as
offending their honor.
Talk away! Says travel
specialist Earl Starkey of Protravel International: “Football [soccer],
children, and family—without too much detail.”
Political and religious
variations aside, there’s an overriding issue when it comes to getting
along in different parts of the world: Is it a small-talk culture or a
big-talk culture? It’s difficult to generalize, but suffice to say that
in East Asia, where the concept of “face” reigns supreme and showing
emotion is verboten, raising a contentious subject at the table can lead
to the fatal breakdown of a relationship. Cultures with a strong
tradition of hospitality and ritual—like some in the Middle East—also
demand a certain level of tact, especially with elders (never mind all
the political minefields). Contrast this with France and Italy, with
their coffee-klatsch culture, or Germany, where small talk is taken for
vapidity. In Israel, beating around the bush will get you nowhere. “They
don’t sugarcoat,” says Nancy Schwartzman, an American documentarian who
has filmed in Israel. “Being overly polite is viewed with a lot of
One American expat says of Argentines, “They have an opinion on
everything—whether they’re informed or not.” And then there’s Russia,
where dinner-table pronouncements are raised to an art form, and being
yelled at by someone who just handed you the pierogi is a sign that
you’re “inside,” that the froideur of Russian street manners has been
stripped away in the warmth of the hearth. So the next time a French
businessman berates you on the evils of imperialism or a Russian cab
driver rants about the absurdities of political correctness, take it as a
sign of respect. And listen politely—but hold your ground. At any rate,
it’ll be easier to engage now that Bush is gone. More than any other
event in recent history, Obama’s election has been a great boon to
American travelers everywhere, with Israel possibly the sole exception.
What Americans Won’t Talk About (According to Everyone Else)
The effect the U.S. government has on the rest of the world. It is the
number one topic of conversation in many countries, but it raises
hackles over here. According to Alec Mally, a former diplomat who now
lives in Greece, Americans there are occasionally referred to as
“killers of peoples,” and the U.S. president as “the guy who runs the
planet.” But it’s not something they’d say to us.
2. The policies of
George W. Bush. Of course he became unpopular here too, but many people
around the world find it hard to believe we elected (and reelected) him
in the first place.
3. That we are not the best country on earth.
This is perhaps even more of a sore point—on both ends—than the two
4. Religious differences. Especially in the developed world,
we’re seen as taking our religion way too seriously. The part it plays
in our daily lives—and our politics—is something they’d be careful about
bringing up.
5. Our family status. Across the Mediterranean and
Asia, the first question you’d ask acquaintances is whether they’re
married, whether they have kids, and if not, why not. But they’ve
learned that the question can cause defensiveness here.
6. Violence.
One of the worst effects of the stereotypes our pop culture forces on
the world is how violent America is. The image is exaggerated, and in
many places things have gotten much better in the past 20 years—but not
every tourist knows that.
7. Race relations. This may be a little
less of an issue since Obama’s election, but the belief reigns in many
places that we have deep-seated issues with race—issues we’re too often
apt to avoid, even if we do sincerely adhere to our politically correct
8. Economic inequality. Let’s face it: We like to believe
we’re a classless society. The world, for the most part, does not see us
that way. For Europeans, the presence of the homeless and the lack of
social services can be incomprehensible. For those from poorer countries
(with plenty of inequality but far less prosperity), it’s more a matter
of global injustice.
9. Someone’s appearance or weight. In many
cultures, “you look fat” is not a rude comment. They may even say it
with a smile and are taken aback when we get offended.
10. How we’re
all the same. Visitors have been surprised at how regionally varied the
states are—and how sensitive some Americans are about being lumped
together as one culture.

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