A Summer of Luxury | Cross-cultural courtesies by Debrett’s

Despite our recent spate of sunny weather, August is typically the time to escape the UK, travel abroad and experience another culture. Whether that means sipping an exotic cocktail on a secluded beach or traipsing through every museum and archaeological site in a 50-mile radius, chances are you may find not only the language foreign, but the manners and behaviour, too. To prevent any potential cross-cultural catastrophes, Renée Kuo, Managing Director at Debrett’s, navigates us through the etiquette of travelling courteously this summer. 

Many people know Debrett’s as the 250-year old authority on British etiquette; however, in recent years we’ve expanded our expertise to include global protocol and social skills.  Our Learning and Development work via our Debrett’s Academy has taken us from Switzerland to Singapore, from Dubai to China, not to mention the myriad of international clients we coach in London.

While etiquette can have old-fashioned connotations, it is essentially a set of customs or expectations specific to a society or culture – including today’s modern, global society.  It is the awareness of and respect for these customs which give us the confidence to forge new relationships, communicate and act in unfamiliar social and business situations.

It is important to remember that varying interpretations of personal space, beach-goers wearing birthday rather than bathing suits, and even basic meetings and greetings can all lead to amusement, discomfort or annoyance. So when traveling to a foreign country, whether for pleasure or business, here are some basics to get you started:

Not every hand gesture holds the same meaning

Want to signal that everything is A-OK with your meal? Best not to curl your index finger and thumb together in Greece, Spain, Brazil, Russia, or Mexico, where the gesture at best can be considered an insult and at worst depicts (ahem) a bodily orifice. The ‘thumbs up’ gesture is likewise insulting in some parts of the Middle East and Africa.

Smiling at strangers does not always make a good first impression

A study in the Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour of over 5,000 individuals across six continents and 44 cultures revealed that, whilst smiling is assumed to be a positive and attractive characteristic in many cultures, in others it is precisely the opposite.  In Russia, as an example, a well-known proverb states that ‘smiling (or laughing) for no reason is a sign of stupidity.’  The study revealed Japan as the country in which smiling individuals are viewed as least intelligent, with Germany viewing smilers as most intelligent.  In Bangalore, India, smilers were considered the most dishonest, whilst the Swiss viewed smilers as most honest.

A little bit of cultural knowledge can carry you a long way

Whilst you don’t have to know all the cultural pitfalls of your holiday destination, the mere awareness of and respect for cultural differences goes a long way.  Learning how to say ‘delicious’ in Italian not only in words but in gesture (point your index finger at your cheek and rotate your wrist back and forth, keeping your finger still) may not only earn you cultural bonus points, but potentially extra dessert.

Headed overseas on business and want to ensure you set the right tone with your counterparts?  Contact us at academy@debretts.co.uk to learn more about our Course for International Business Etiquette.

And if you need a stylish and practical way to jot down all your travel experiences, our Debrett’s A5 notebooks, bound in Italian calfskin leather, come complete with cross-cultural courtesies from how to tip to what is taboo in certain countries. Available in Brunswick Green, Chelsea Red, Eton Blue and Knightsbridge Navy.