OK, you’re lucky enough to be in Italy…and you’ve actually been invited to a dinner party.
So, when in Rome do as the Romans do: bring a beautiful bouquet of a dozen red roses as a gift to your hostess.
According to Dean Foster, self-styled master of global etiquette, the Romans don’t bring flowers.
Instead of bringing them with you, have the flowers sent the morning after the dinner party.
Also, in case you didn’t know, Italians prefer an odd number of flowers in the bouquet, and red roses are far too personal since they imply romance.
Who would have thought.
And that’s Foster’s point. “Americans,” he says “are often perceived as being indifferent to other cultures, not caring, and we have to be good ambassadors, we have to show the world that we are interested in the societies we visit. That they do matter to us.”
Drawing on his background as a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler and correspondent for CultureWise’s monthly column, Foster has written five helpful books on travel and culture designed to foil the ugly American syndrome which, he says, is unfortunately alive and well in the minds of many people in the world.
In his Global Etiquette Guide to Europe, Foster says that despite our close cultural ties to Europe it ‘s still too easy for the uninformed traveler to commit a serious breach of etiquette…or worse.
Well, you might argue, the Italians are, ah, really different from us. Who could have possibly known about the flowers’ snafu.
And, OK, I now know never to cut your potatoes with a fork, at least in Austria.
What could go wrong there. After all, they’re virtually cousins of the Americans.
So you’re having drinks with some Brits you’ve just been introduced to…or maybe even tea.
The gal or guy across from you reaches over and subtly fingers your tie, compliments it, then asks which college your degree is from, and the year you received it.
Did you miss something here?
“Public” schools (which are really private schools) traditionally have school ties that identify their students and the year they graduated. So, if you wear a striped tie you run the risk of associating yourself with a particular school in Britain.
The moral: Better to avoid striped ties in Britain.
Does any of this matter? Especially in a homogenized world culture where the cultural hegemony of the United States is unarguable, and everyone drinks Coca Cola and probably has at least one McDonald’s?
Foster says it does indeed.
“Most of what the world knows about us, they know from TV shows or maybe their visit to Disney. It’s superficial. By showing sensitivity to and knowledge of other cultures, we’re building bridges, and insuring that our trip, for business or pleasure, will just be that much more successful.”
Because foreign cultures are different from ours, he says, a cultural snafu or “no no” can create an awkward or unpleasant situation that might spoil a vacation.
Worse, if you’re conducting business in a foreign land, cultural illiteracy can cause the deal to sour .
“It’s really about getting along with people,” Foster days, “creating a favorable impression and looking good.”
His web site (www.learnaboutcultures.com ) offers fun, eye-opening cultural quizzes, and his popular Culture Guides-To-Go© are down-loadable, travel-ready snapshots of cultural “dos and don’ts” which, if nothing else, are very entertaining.
For example, if you happen to be in China, Foster says to avoid dramatic movements or facial expressions because they can be considered rude or unsophisticated and cause laughter or anger.
Great advice…until you’re in a traffic jam in Beijing!