By Sarah Pridgeon
Mad dogs and Englishman go out in the midday sun. It’s an old saying that relates to the days of the British Empire, when my lot were planting flags around the globe while making ignorant life choices on several continents at once, some of which apparently led to heatstroke. In these days of jet-setting and cultural exchange, though, I suspect it could apply to us all.
As someone who likes to think of herself as a globetrotter (despite the reality that I’m happiest when tucked up with a blanket and a cup of tea by 7 p.m. at the latest), I find it fascinating how easy it is to assume that the way I think and act is the way everybody else is inclined to think and act. Time and again, I have been proven wrong.
Because I have chosen to conduct my life in the parallel universe of Wyoming, I have been dealing with all those tiny glitches in the matrix for several years. I’ve mentioned one or two of them in this column.
For instance, the fact that my way of using the word “please” at least twice per sentence for the sake of politeness can actually have the opposite effect. Or the times when I’ve thought I was indicating clearly that I would like someone to move out of my way by coughing gently and staring at my destination, but the recipient merely thought I had a twitch.
But it’s not just me, of course. I would venture to guess there isn’t a person alive who could avoid tumbling into at least one of the cultural traps that lay in wait across our planet. I happened across a fascinating chat thread, somewhere in the depths of the internet, in which civilians from all walks of life shared warnings of the things one should absolutely never do when visiting their country.
Some were pretty obvious. Even without being cautioned, I feel I was unlikely to start poking at locals while on a road trip and I’ve lived in a big city long enough to know it’s rude to stare.
On the other hand, I would not have guessed that wishing a German a happy birthday before the actual date arrived would make them hide under the stairs for the rest of the week. Apparently, it’s a lot like congratulating someone on passing a test they haven’t taken yet and, according to an old superstition, you’ve now made sure something awful will happen to them.
However unlikely it might be that I would reach out and ruffle a stranger’s hair in Malaysia or Thailand, I’ve now placed it firmly on my “to not do” list. In those cultures, the head is the most sacred of body parts and it’s extremely rude to touch a person’s head or pass something from above it.
Also in that country, just in case the occasion crops up, you should avoid giving anything to a monk if you’re a woman. Nor should you point at things using your finger, as it’s rude to use anything but your thumb.
Watch where you tread in India. If you happen to touch anything sacred or worthy of respect with your feet, such as a national symbol or the image of a god, you could get yourself thrown in jail. Feet are mucky and base and the lowest part of your body, you see.
Don’t expect anyone in India to turn up on time for an appointment, either – a native of that country suggests that IST does not stand for Indian Standard Time at all, but Indian Stretchable Time. (The opposite is true in Germany, apparently – after five minutes, the average German will assume you have been kidnapped en route.)
The romantics among you should never give a woman a bouquet in Bulgaria if it has an even number of flowers. This is only done at a funeral, so do count carefully before you make your grand gesture. Bulgarians also shake their heads to say yes and nod to say no, which I imagine has caused a few incidents along the way.
In Italy, you’ll be laughed at if you order a cappuccino or a café latte after 11 a.m. Actually, you’ll be laughed at anyway if you order the latter, because apparently it doesn’t exist. It’s confusing, but even so I would avoid giving up on finding the right words if you’re ordering in the evenings, because if you ask just for “coffee” they’ll bring you an espresso.
I am sad to report that it is also considered blasphemy to ask for pineapple on one’s pizza. Or chicken.
Here’s one I bet you’d never have guessed in a million years: don’t try to take plastic bags into Rwanda. They’ll be confiscated at the airport as they are entirely prohibited within that country.
Being a southpaw (so strongly, in fact, that I believe God only bothered attaching a right arm to me so I’d be able to keep my balance), I may need to think twice about visiting Indonesia. In that part of the world, it’s rude to do much at all with your left hand, including giving and receiving or eating.
In China, never flip a fish while you’re cooking it, unless you’re brave enough to invite bad luck upon yourself. In India, as my grandfather was fond of telling me, don’t be shocked if a fellow diner lets loose with a burp upon finishing their meal – if they didn’t, the chef might think they didn’t enjoy it.
And finally, keep those smiles to a minimum in Russia. As one native put it, smiles in Russia are like days of sunshine: kept for special moments to be treasured with the ones you love. Should you happen to flash a grin at a stranger on the subway, people are likely to think you are brain-damaged or a thief.
All in all, I suppose things could be much more difficult – my home culture is similar enough to yours that I seldom cause true offense. I’m awkward enough at the best of times, imagine how many times I’d bumble if I wasn’t sure where to put my feet or hands or even what to do with my face.