Pleasantries Around the World (Essential Education, Part II)

John Lett (About) (Readings)

If you have spent a lot of time living in other countries or with cultures that are not the culture of your childhood, you will soon realize that no place satisfies you completely. Furthermore, it is easy to make generalizations about a place or its people, especially when something goes wrong. I am often guilty of this, as coming from a sociology background sometimes makes one prone to think in terms of categories or traits.

I have been very ineffective about taking notes when traveling or living in other places, but there are a few major concepts that I have picked out from around the world. Ideally, we could pick out some of the most polite features from every culture and then merge them to make a complete, almost ideal package for international standards. I do realize that we often do not have time or the mental acuity to pull off all of the features, but it is good to be aware. Personally, I try to be cognizant of all that I can, but some I deliberately don’t practice, or forget about until it’s too late.

Observing and practicing a few of the following tips will particularly make social interactions that could lead to business more favorable and conducive to profit for both sides. My apologies to not include other regions here, particularly Australia, but my knowledge outside of Europe, East Asia, and North America is not extensive enough to comment.


This is one huge continent with several very different cultures, but there are a few things that apply in most, if not all of the continent.

  • It is generally rude to ask the question that North Americans often ask, “So what do you do?” To those coming from outside of the North American environment, this is a thinly-veiled inquiry as to how much money someone makes, or what kind of status the person has. I no longer as this question, ever. Instead, if you want to express interest or increase familiarity ask, “What do you have going on in your life now?” or “What are you interested in these days?”
  • This should apply everywhere, but do not flippantly promise or offer something unless you are certain that you can and will offer it.
  • Alcohol is much more readily available, but do not mistake this for a tolerant attitude toward extreme drunkenness.
  • In most of northern Europe, you should remove your shoes when entering someone’s home (I was told this is mostly to do with snow).
  • You can have a political, religious, or other very intense conversation, have differing views, and everyone is still friends. You must not shout, get offended, or feel personally attacked; it is just the way education and perspectives are sorted out.
  • In northern Europe, be very precise about the time that you show up. If you are early, you are expected to help prepare things if other guests are coming. Ireland and southern Europe are much more loose about it, except in perhaps a business context.
  • Rounds – it is very customary for each person to take turns buying each other drinks, and it must go through the entire rotation. To Americans, this is wasteful and scary because it is not very precise.
  • In Germany and Scandinavia, the male should open the door and walk in before the lady as a way to “defend” her.
  • Europeans think it is the way North Americans eat is barbaric, as both hands must be on the table at all times in Europe, and holding utensils.
  • In all but the most high-level deals, straightforwardness, attention to detail, and precision are expected. Most businesses cannot legally withstand any possibility of ambiguities in a deal.
  • Excessive smiling is considered insincere.

Strengths to apply to your life anywhere: Don’t be short-tempered, concentrate on the person and their personal interests rather than their work, ask all people when entering their home if you can wear your shoes inside. Generally, an unassuming nature is appropriate, but you are entitled to have an opinion so long as it is not a personal attack.


  • General to the specific. A lot of outsiders will feel like they do not understand where the conversation is going. This is because it is polite to start with very general things and then become more detailed. This is how the relationship is negotiated. In many countries, you will start out with topics like “Do you like Korean food?” etc. Many Europeans and North Americans will be bored to death but this is just building a general connection. Sometimes it is very hard to get a straight answer out of people, and this could be an avoidance because they don’t know how to answer, or they are ashamed of the answer.
  • Almost all intimate relationships or big business contracts will involve alcohol. I know that I missed a few big deals because I refuse to be forced to drink and play games.
  • Rarely will family matters come up in any business deal. However, in some countries, in resumes and cover letters, people will mention how many brothers and sisters they have, which primary and secondary schools they went to, and so on. This gives the employer some idea of the social networks and position in society the employee may have.
  • A contract is not iron-clad. If circumstances change, people see no problem with trying to modify conditions, such as hours worked, tasks, etc. The oral contract supersedes the written in many cases, although a case taken to the court will favor the written contract if it goes that far.
  • In Japan, expect a wide berth when you are walking down the street. People are very spatially aware in that country, and sensitive to society as a whole. In Korea or China, you can be bumped into and no one will say anything.
  • Money is more freely discussed, and people may ask your salary. A yoga instructor friend of mine who is opening several classes in Spain (but who taught in Asia at the same time as I did) said that the Peace Corps and non-profits abroad typically instruct people to respond to the “how much?” question with “I make enough.”
  • For high level deals, you will be expected to drink in order to suss out your real character.
  • Try to make yourself physically and as a presence, as small as possible. In many places, exuberance and “owning the place” is a good vibe to have, but in Asia, you do not want to outstretch your legs or move about too freely, because it is crowded and often one cannot predict the movements of others in an unfamiliar culture. Language affects physical and spatial orientation.
  • It is common for friends to lend each other money.

Strengths to apply to your life or anywhere: Friendships run deeper here, so one must be more involved and committed than in other territories. Play the flattery game, but do not necessarily internalize it. Think big, rather than in contracted dimensions as North Americans and Europeans do.


While there are differences between the United States and Canada, it can generally be said that North Americans are accustomed to a quicker pace of life where gratification comes more readily. As a rule, the differences can be broken down into Americans being more likely to overreact and become quickly stimulated, whereas Canadians are more likely to under-react. Americans, at this moment, are more stimulated by social issues (politics, wide conceptual issues along the lines of “values”), while Canadians are more stimulated by localized matters (civic or community implications, viruses, contamination, local pollution, etc.).

  • Keep religion or political affiliations off the table in most of the US, as any division is likely to overpower or shift the focus off other interpersonal or business matters.
  • In Canada, do not mention particular details about money before you know the other person very well, as most people will display alarm. It is considered either bad taste or as the introduction to some kind of profiteering venture.
  • It is typically okay to make small talk with people around you in public spaces so long as there is some kind of uniting event (e.g., everyone is waiting for a bus that is now late, or, “prices sure have skyrocketed,” but the latter you might hesitate to mention with all but the oldest Canadians).
  • In the US, time is more sacred than most places. The time is on display in more spaces and places than anywhere else, except maybe Japan.
  • It is not uncommon to eat a meal in the car or to do several tasks at once.
  • Most people speak on their mobile phones very openly and with limited volume control. This is mainstream but many people resent it.
  • It is nearly obligatory for Canadians to visit Cuba at some point. Most Americans do not travel much outside the US, although “middle America” typically visits Las Vegas, as most airlines have special deals to this particular city. If you want to politely engage in conversation with this area, just ask “Have you been able to get away to anywhere this year?”
  • The best inroads to making lots of more high profile business contacts in the US is through churches or the fraternity/sorority system.
  • The declining economy and circumstances is a typical topic, but be careful to allow the American to lead this area, and do not attribute it to a particular person or philosophy – be constructive with possible solutions if you want to remain in a stranger’s favor. Canadians typically believe that Canada is a safe haven from the majority of world turmoil, or that their decline is primarily due to dropping exports to a failing US. To make inroads in a business context with Canadians, just reiterate the platitudes that things are better there “due to the stability and prudence of Canadian banks” and let them lead more controversial directions in the conversation.

Strengths to apply to your life anywhere: The North American belief in abundance is refreshing and can add a lot of vitality to a deal. North Americans, until very recently, were happy and had self-belief, a trait that is endemic and can be revived with some coaxing. Americans can be stimulated by motion, “excited talk,” big ideas, or broad moral talk of values and ideals. Canadians are more likely to be stimulated by ideas of security, predictability, status related to titles in a position (if you are hiring, “director” or “vice president,” etc. is more impressive there), and sometimes an ethical platform – sustainability being a catalyst word. North Americans at present, outside of major cities, give enormous latitude regarding appearances or formal pleasantries, but will often only hire or buy into something if there is a strong belief that the person is in demand, socially popular, or an insider on some level.

My apologies for any over-simplifications, but this text works as a constructive intro to doing business or making connections in these territories.

John Lett (About) (Readings)

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One Response to Pleasantries Around the World (Essential Education, Part II)

  1. Well, this is just terrific, and beautifully written. In fact, the shoe thing for Europe is a good thing to apply everywhere. Make an effort to wipe or scrape your shoes before going into any place, and if it is a home, stand just inside for a moment and ask outright what the shoe etiquette is. In Germany, homes often have a pouch of house slippers to lend visitors (many cultures, workers keep slippers in their desks for during the day). Never kick off your shoes thoughtlessly. Make sure they are not dripping or shedding anything and leave them neatly side by side. Many homes have shoe racks right up front. The dirt brought in from outside is nasty and makes more work for the cleaner or homemaker. In England, the Brits can be VERY shy about taking their shoes or ANY of their clothing off. They need to be told etiquette in advance, and they usually deal with it really well and bring their own slippers then! People need a place to sit down, to not be spied on, yet to be offered help if they need it. In many homes they are then immediately shown to a washroom to “freshen up,” after their coats are hung, and this usually just means to wash the hands, even for only a second. The French tend to not change the hand linens often, so if this grosses you out, be prepared. (Many old timers carry their own “mouchoirs,” big napkins. Really.)

    If your shoes are modest you do need to maintain them. Never go around in any culture with run-down shoes. And if you have holes in your socks, what is WRONG with you?

    I was driven mad at first by “small talk” in France and it took me years to learn, “no business is discussed until the cheese course.” As far as the alcohol goes, it is a good idea to find out what they may have on hand. Pastis is typical in France but you can and should make it mostly water. You will be watched and approved of if you drink but have only one drink. Suze, a gentian drink, used to be for the ladies, but men can ask for it no problem, saying they find it good for their digestion (it tastes weird but you are never expected to drink more than one of those, nor should you). If you really cannot or will not drink in France, you can just say, “My health does not allow it. I am sorry.” You should then ask for water but if a visitor, be careful about the tap water. It is “hard.” Most places will have bottled flat water on hand. It may not even be chilled and don’t ever ask for more than one ice cube, if that.

    I’ve heard many French people add, “if it is not too indiscreet to ask?” right after they ask me, for example, what I do for a living. If worse comes to worse, I can smile and say, “That’s personal!” Discretion is all here. You are not likely to be looked down upon because you won’t open up. People have coffee buddies here for years and have no idea what they do for a living. You can always reply, “I work,” or “I am a worker,” or “I do not work” and polite French people will leave it at that. Beware if they don’t.

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