Invited for lunch with the King of the Zulus, I drove for hours up dirt roads into the hills, fretting that I might be late. I needn't have worried. Arriving shortly after 1pm, I found not the King and a keenly expectant table of 12 but 5,000 guests, seated patiently on the grass in tribal costume as His Highness and other dignitaries made endless speeches. It wasn't until almost 5pm that the royal party repaired to the palace.
I followed, waving my invitation at the gate, and was shown through to a huge garden where several hundred people waited in queues for freshly slaughtered and barbecued cow. I joined the line and waited patiently, only to be approached by a burly security guard, who motioned me brusquely to one side. Was I about to be thrown out? I was, after all, the only white person present. But no, it seemed that my colour meant I was a VIP. I was ushered into the palace and shown to a splendid buffet where, having filled my plate, I asked for a beer.
This last misjudgement of the day proved to be my worst. The King, I now discovered, is notoriously teetotal and nobody drinks in his presence. I was lucky to get just a frown and a polite warning with my Fanta.
If you travel, particularly to places off the tourist trail, a sense of cultural disorientation will often overtake you. You'll find yourself in situations where the rules are totally different and making a string of faux pas is all too easy. At a barbecue in rural Australia, I remember thinking I was doing fine, standing at one end of the garden bantering with the women. It was only when the shouts of, "Hey, are you trying to chat up my missus?!" were repeated several times that I began to understand that Down Under, in the sticks at least, you talk to the fellers.
In the West of Ireland one Boxing Day, I expressed a rather shocked surprise at the enthusiasm with which the old guys at the bar were awaiting the arrival of the "rent boys". It was only when a bunch of young men dressed up as birds turned up that I found out about the fine old Irish tradition of the Wren Boys.
I won't go into the cringemaking details of how I got the African handshake totally wrong in the townships of Cape Town (let's just say that it's a carefully structured, three-part affair); mightily offended my host at a business lunch in Santiago by unwittingly ordering wine for the whole table (and all I asked for was a simple glass of bianco); or got mugged in Rio after making the cardinal error of walking on the beach in the rain (something no self-respecting local would ever do). But the point is clear: what at home could be dismissed as the tedious demands of outmoded etiquette can abroad be – literally – a lifesaver.
Stick your thumb up in a traffic jam in Iran and you may well become a road-rage statistic. In that country, the gesture is known as the bilakh, and means "Sit on this!" Hold hands with your partner in Saudi Arabia and you could get arrested; there, you only hold hands with someone of the same sex, and strictly as a sign of friendship.
Even when you get to know people and go for a drink, pitfalls await. Cin cin is absolutely the right toast in Spain or Italy. But say it in Tokyo, and you might get a strange response – there, cin-cin is a word that a mother might use to her little boy in the bath to describe a certain key part of his anatomy.
Sit down for a meal and things don't get any easier. In parts of the Middle East, India and Africa, eating with your hands is normal – just make sure it's the right one; the left is "unclean", being reserved for a related function a few hours later.
In China or Japan, your host will be far too polite to tell you that it's rude to stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice – an action that mimics the placing of incense sticks at traditional funeral rites.
With money and jobs at stake, you might have thought that big business would have made sure it didn't commit the kinds of gaffes made by travelling individuals. After all, HSBC has based a whole advertising campaign on its supposed intercultural savvy. But other multinationals have blundered disastrously – and expensively. When Pepsi-Cola launched in China with the slogan "Come Alive With Pepsi", they failed to realise that this would translate locally as ,"Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead", while the Dublin-based makers of the after-dinner liqueur Irish Mist failed to forecast the poor launch for their product in Germany, where "mist" means manure.
Politicians haven't done much better. George Bush Snr got it badly wrong on a state visit to China, when he presented Premier Li Peng with a pair of Texan cowboy boots, with one sole showing the Chinese flag and the other the Stars and Stripes. What he and his advisers hadn't taken into account was that, in the East, the sole of the foot is regarded as the lowliest and most unclean part of the body.
His gaffe-prone son has faced a different problem. With television news beamed around the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week, leaders these days have to be especially careful. At George W's second inauguration ceremony in 2005, he proudly made the "hook 'em horns" gesture (with first and little fingers upright) for the cameras. In Texas it means victory. In Italy, it's known as the cornuto, and can be used to imply that a man is a cuckold. In Norway, it's the sign of the devil, giving the newspapers there plenty of ammunition in the days that followed.
As we all travel more, so the chances of such intercultural gaffes rise. But the same process is also changing forever the cultural oddities of the world. As tourists blow through, they bring their language, gestures and habits with them. Satellite television has marched up into the remote hills of Arunachal Pradesh and down into the thickest jungles of Peru. New generations ape the glamorous habits of the incomers and the international. All too soon, the world will be the equivalent of the contemporary British high street – tediously uniform.
So, as we do our best to observe the local manners and customs of the world, we must also treasure them. With an appropriate cry of Santé, let us raise a glass to the chauvinistic French, who prosecuted the Body Shop for using English expressions such as "pineapple" and "no frizz" in their adverts. Let us bow low to the Japanese businessmen who remain such sticklers for form as they present their meishi, or business cards. And even smile indulgently at the incorrigibly macho Argentinians, as they greet passing females with such gallant piropos (compliments) as, "If beauty were a crime, you would deserve a life in prison."
In Mongolia, if you step on someone's foot, you're expected to shake their hand and offer to let them step on your foot in return. It can be an odd experience in a crowded bus in Ulan Bator to find an old woman begging you to press your boot on her shoe.
Ahead by a nose
In general, it's best not to blow your nose in front of others across the East, from Saudi Arabia, through China to Malaysia – especially at mealtimes.
Spitting is much more acceptable. In China, people happily spit out bones on the tablecloth during meals; out and about, even on buses and trains, it's a free-for-all, particularly in rural areas.
Attitudes to animals around the world are sadly not always as soft as they are in pet-loving Britain. Dogs in particular get a rough ride in the East.
In Arab countries they're considered unclean, and the Prophet Mohamed is supposed to have said that angels will not visit any house that contains a dog.
Another Hadith (a tradition relating to the life and sayings of Mohamed) proclaims that for every day you own a dog, your good deeds in life are diminished.
To add injury to insult, there are five animals that Islam allows to be killed in a sanctuary: rats, scorpions, kites, crows – and dogs.
In Korea, the species has an even worse time. Though some Koreans do keep dogs as pets, they are also reared as farmyard animals in constricting cages, before being slaughtered to make dog stew.
Though cats have historically been protected and honoured across Asia, and kept as pets, there are still parts of China where they are eaten: particularly in the dish called "dragon, tiger and phoenix", which mixes cat with snake and chicken.
In Korea, cats are not just eaten but boiled alive with herbs to make goyangi soju ("cat tonic"), a folk remedy for arthritis.
Don't say it with flowers
Flowers may seem like the perfect gift to delight the gracious hostess of a dinner, but beware: in many countries particular varieties, colours and even their numbers have unwelcome associations. Chrysanthemums are a reminder of death in Belgium, Italy, France, Spain and Turkey.
In Germany, Japan, Austria, India, Turkey, an even number of flowers can be bad luck. In China, Taiwan and Indonesia, the same goes for odd numbers. In Peru, anything except roses is regarded as cheap, while in Kenya and Tanzania, buying any kind of flowers whatsoever could land you in trouble – they're used to offer condolences only.
So diverse are the rules that a bunch of yellow carnations could send out all kinds of signals. In Thailand, Sweden, Poland or Germany, carnations are to be used only for funerals. In Russia or Iran, yellow flowers signal hatred. Then again, of course, they could simply be a perfectly innocuous gift in many Western countries.
You really shouldn't have
Giving – and receiving – gifts with either the right hand or both hands is important throughout the Middle East and Asia; in China, as in Hong Kong or Japan, it should always be with both hands.
In China, Hong Kong or Singapore, someone may "graciously refuse" a gift three times before accepting it; ideally, you should do the same.
In all these countries – and Japan – you should never encourage your recipient by saying "Go on! Have a look!" The potential disappointment of receiving something they don't need or want could lead to an unbearable loss of face.
In Japan, before you eat, you will often be offered a hot towel known as an oshibori. You should use this to clean your hands, not your face or neck. And never blow your nose on it.
When you eat in a restaurant in Japan, you will probably be offered waribashi, or disposable wooden chopsticks. Once you've removed them from their paper sleeve, you can impress your hosts by doing the local thing and turning that sleeve into a rest for your chopsticks. Fold it in half end-to-end, then tie the resultant strip of paper into a knot: on this you rest the blunt end of your sticks. Waribashi usually come joined together at the top. You should separate them over your lap, making sure to keep any little splinters away from your food. When you've finished your meal, untie your knotted paper holder and put your used chopsticks back in their case; this tells the waiter that you've finished.
You should eat everything with chopsticks, down to the last grain of rice in your bowl. For soup, take out the pieces of food one by one, then drink the remaining liquid from the bowl. The one exception is sushi, which may be eaten with your hands. Dip only the top, fishy side into the soy sauce.
In China and Taiwan, if there's something in your mouth you want to remove – a piece of gristle or whatever – use the chopsticks or the porcelain soup spoon, rather than your fingers. Perversely, spitting it out on a side plate is fine.
The Arab belch
Making a noise while eating is generally considered rude in the West. Masticating loudly, slurping soup or, God forbid, burping are all things that are frowned on in European cultures. In the Far East, however, the loud guzzling of noodles or soup is not just considered fine; it's essential. Slurping, it's said, cools off noodles and enhances the flavour, and is a compliment to the chef.
There's a long-standing Western myth that Arabs like to belch loudly after a meal to show their appreciation to the host and/or cook. Some Americans also believe this to be true of the French and Germans. In fact, this is more of a north and central African custom (you'll find it in countries such as Kenya and Nigeria), and the belch should only be small. In China, too, a little burpette, as part of the post-slurping, "aaaaah" routine that indicates you've enjoyed your meal, is more than acceptable.
Going Dutch in Beijing
In cultures that put an emphasis on, if not social equality, then at least equality while socialising, splitting the bill after a meal out in a restaurant – going Dutch – is common. So you'll find diners divvying up bills in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Australia and the US.
In southern European, Middle Eastern and Latin American cultures, people fight to get the bill – the idea that Katie should pay less because she didn't have a starter or Ian more because he's enormous and drinks like a fish would not be understood or, if it were, would be considered embarrassing.
In China, the concept of splitting the bill can be offensive. If you are invited out to a restaurant, your host will pay: you should politely demur and offer to pick up the tab yourself (up to three times), but to suggest a contribution would cause him or her to seriously lose face. Reciprocate at a later date with a splendid meal for which you fork out. Unless you're out with young people, you should never even attempt to "go Dutch" in Beijing.
Wearing what the locals wear can be OK, up to a point. Donning the semi-transparent decorated shirt known as the barong tagalog in the Philippines is fine for any social occasion, as is the open-necked, long-sleeved batik shirt in Indonesia. But the risk of causing offence or appearing ridiculous is always there. Wearing local beads as jewellery in Togo could make you a laughing stock: they are traditionally worn at the waist to hold up an underskirt. To hang them round your neck is much the same as putting your knickers on your head.
Sock it to 'em
In most parts of the world, whether you wear black lace-ups, white slip-ons or fake crocodile-skin loafers, the fact that you keep your footwear on can cause more offence than its appearance.
When visiting a Japanese home, leave your footwear in the genkan (area outside the front door), toes pointing towards the exit, before stepping inside. You will be given slippers to take you from the front door to the living-room, where they should be removed before you step on the tatami (reed mat). On a visit to the loo, you'll be given "toilet slippers".
It's a tie
For men, the business uniform of dark suit, conservative tie and dark socks is acceptable pretty much anywhere. Germans are keen on highly polished shoes, while for Italians the concept of la bella figura prevails: use a good tailor, dress stylishly, and they will notice and be impressed. In the Middle East they will clock the quality of your briefcase and watch, while in America good dentistry impresses (the disparaging description "English teeth" says it all). Russians, too, expect sartorial formality: gossip has it that one of the reasons Mikhail Khodorkovsky was destroyed by the government was that he turned up for a meeting at the Kremlin wearing a polo-neck.
Interest in sport is universal, so it pays to be aware of attention-grabbing events in specific areas, such as Wimbledon for tennis, the Tour de France for cycling, the US Open for golf or Manila's World Slasher Cup for cockfighting. In Australia, however, sport comes close to being the national religion. If you're male, Australians will assume that you share their passion. And not just for their teams and leagues, but yours, too. As with all religions, this sacred activity is not to be mocked. There are no jokes about losing the Ashes, for example – to make one as a visiting Pommie might be to put yourself in a life-threatening situation.
Saving "face" – or the dignity of yourself and others – is central throughout the Middle and Far East. Losing your temper in a meeting or in public, for example, is a shameful loss of face: if you do this in Asia, you'll be neither trusted nor respected. Being confrontational, insulting people, calling attention to someone's error or otherwise creating embarrassment will all result in a loss of face – both for you and your counterpart. In short: you should never do anything in the East that makes you or anyone else look foolish.
On a trivial level, this can lead to some comic extremes. If you're out in a bar in South Korea with a group of business associates and buy a particular brand of beer, you may find that all those with you will do the same, so there's absolutely no danger of you "losing face" over your choice. The trick here is to let them have one round the same as you before graciously suggesting everyone should choose their own brand.
Talking about sex is a taboo in Muslim countries, and dirty jokes a total no-no. If mention is made of the Prophet Mohammed, it should be followed by the words "Peace be upon him", which is generally shortened to "PBUH" in written communications.
Divided by a common language
Even within one language, words have different meanings in different places. In Spain, adios means "goodbye"; in Cuba and some parts of South America, the same word is used as a "Hi, hello" to passers-by. In France, bonjour means "hello"; in Quebec, people say it as they leave. In Portugal, bicha is a "queue"; in Brazil, it means "gay". If you are constipada in Lisbon, you have a cold; in Rio, you have a long time to read the newspaper.
Raise a toast
There are local variations everywhere. In Switzerland you must clink glasses with everyone within reach before drinking. In Japan you should never fill your own glass; wait for your neighbour to offer, and when his is half-empty, fill it in return. In China, if your host proposes a toast, you must immediately reciprocate with one of your own. In Germany an old superstition holds that if you don't look into your counterpart's eyes when clinking glasses, seven years of bad sex will follow.
The Chinese will expect you to drink a lot. If you don't want to follow "Ganbei!" with the customary single gulp, say "Suiyi!" ("As you like!"), which allows each of you to sip instead.
Am I the first?
If you're invited to dinner at 7pm in Germany, that means 7pm; anything after 7.15 and you'll be thought impolite, even if the invite is for the light cold-cuts collation they call Abendbrot (evening bread) as opposed to the more substantial Abendessen (evening meal) which may also be eaten out in a restaurant.
In France, you may stretch the quart d'heure académique a little, but don't be so late that you miss any of your hostess's carefully orchestrated series of courses.
In Latin America, unless you want to catch your hosts in their curlers, it's not just fashionable but essential to be unpunctual. Turning up to dinner bang on time in Argentina implies that you're greedy. The same is true in Singapore.
Time to tuck in
The world eats, in any case, at very different times. Poles breakfast well and early, then often have nothing till obiad, between 2 and 4pm. Japanese salarymen may scoff a bowl of noodles at lunchtime, but they'll be hungry by 5 or 6pm and ready for something more substantial (though those with a long commute may not get to eat till nine). Americans who still sit down together have their dinner early, around 6 or 6.30 pm, while most Europeans wait till 7.30 or 8pm. If you're asked for dinner at 8pm in Brazil, beware – you probably won't see a main course till 10 or 11pm, if not later.
Goat's eye soup? delicious!
If at some point during a meal you are offered the local delicacy, it's important to accept, even if it makes you sick to your back teeth just to look at the baleful goat's eye on your plate.
Be it bear's paw soup in China, cat or dog stew in Korea, rat pudding in Arunachal Pradesh, in India – to be offered such dishes is always a rare honour, if not an important sign of acceptance.
In Arab countries you will always be offered more food when you've emptied your plate. You will be asked to take more two or three times, in a ritual known as the uzooma. You should refuse the first time; the host will insist and you should refuse again; the host will insist again and then you should give in. If you really don't want more, leave something on your plate.
Pick a card...
In the UK, handing over a business card to a new contact or potential associate is a fairly relaxed matter. You may well need to be in touch with each other – so here's your card. If you've forgotten it, it's no huge problem; an email address or a contact number can be scrawled on a scrap of paper, an old receipt or even a beermat.
But in many places, and particularly the East, the exchange of cards is a highly formalised procedure. In China, for example, your card should be taken from the breast or hip pocket of your jacket (never your trouser pocket) and offered with both hands, to the most senior person first.
In Japan, when presented with a card – or meishi – study it for a few seconds before putting it away carefully (ideally in a smart leather card wallet). Stuffing it in a back pocket will be seen as a mark of disrespect, while dropping it is an outright insult. Your card is an extension of your person, and should be in the best nick possible. Your counterpart may well bow on the exchange, and though there's no need to bow back, it's polite to drop your head in an acknowledging nod. Should he hiss though his teeth, don't worry: this merely indicates that he considers you important.
If you're then attending a meeting together, the thing to do is to line up the cards you've been given in front of you, corresponding to Suzuki-san and Koizumi-san on the opposite side. Not producing a card will be seen as a sign that you're not interested in continuing the business relationship.
And now... our four key points
When making presentations in the Far East, be aware of auspicious colours and numbers. Avoid that unlucky green or funereal blue in PowerPoint presentations in China; and four of anything there or in Japan is just as unlucky in business as in leisure time. If you're going to make key points make them in threes, sixes or eights. If all goes well in China and you get applause for your presentation, the form, as at the entrance to a banquet, is to applaud back.
Eyes wide shut
In Japan, sitting with your eyes closed during meetings is common and is not in any way an insult. That person may well be concentrating hard to understand your English or the words of the interpreter. Or he may just have nodded off; this isn't unusual and shouldn't be taken personally. In Asia generally, eye contact is at a minimum, and a full-on, direct stare could be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate your counterpart or to "stare them down". Not so in the Arab world and the Mediterranean, where the reverse is the case: it's important to hold eye contact as an expression of interest; someone who doesn't meet your eye may be regarded as evasive, even untrustworthy.
Meeting in the middle
Negotiating tactics vary radically around the world. The bottom line, internationally, is that you will only be sure of getting what you want if you're prepared to walk away, but the path to that crunch point is a very varied one.
The Chinese, for example, are always polite but will haggle expertly and for as long as it takes to get the deal they want.
Flattery, exaggerated demands, meaningless concessions, false deadlines – anything is fair game. But remember, this is a culture whose philosophical basis comes not just from Confucius but Lao Tsu, who taught that the key to life was to find the tao – or "way" – between two opposing forces, the middle ground.
In Russia, by contrast, willingness to compromise is seen as a sign of weakness (if not, in fact, morally wrong). So, if you are trying to suggest such a thing, better to talk about meeting each other half-way or making your proposal conditional on an equivalent concession, rather than using the dread word kompromiss. And don't be put out if you find your counterparts theatrically confrontational.
"Face" is not a consideration here. In order to get their way Russians may use all kinds of strategies, from showing exaggerated patience to the staging of temper tantrums and walk-outs. Delaying tactics, pressure and threats are all a normal part of the horse-trading that is Russian negotiation.
Silence is golden
When negotiating in Gulf countries, be prepared for the strategic use of silence. Arabs are well used to periods of communal quiet in all kinds of meetings but know how embarrassed Westerners can be made by it. If you sense that this tactic is being employed deliberately, fight fire with fire – fall silent in return.
Lost in translation
Even when negotiations are over and contracts are signed, there is still plenty of room for disaster when operating in a new and unfamiliar culture. When Coca-Cola first launched in China, shopkeepers trying to come up with characters that sounded like ko-ka ko-la ended up with a name that meant "bite the wax tadpole".
Over the hill... At 30?
In the West, dating was traditionally a stage on the road to marriage. Some cultures developed customs to emphasise this. In Germany there's still a charming event where individuals who have reached the age of 30 and not got hitched are publicly punished. Accompanied by their friends, the offenders are taken to a local church, town hall or opera house, where the men are made to sweep the steps while the women have to clean shoe polish-covered door handles. They can only be released from these onerous tasks when kissed by a virgin of the opposite sex, possibly one who may release them from their offensive state of singledom. An all-night party generally follows.
Here comes the groom
In most places the groom stands waiting for the bride, who traditionally arrives late enough to hold up the ceremony. If you should find yourself in El Salvador, however, don't be alarmed if the wedding starts without her. This is normal. As she finally enters the church, the congregation breaks into the nuptial song.
At Hindu weddings it's the bride who waits for the groom and his party, who arrive in a procession; by foot, on horseback, or even – as in the cliché – on an elephant. Should you ever find yourself in this invidious position, you must remember to bring a garland for your bride and a coconut for her mother.
Going Dutch in Beijing by Mark McCrum is published by Profile, £9.99. To order a copy for the special price of £8.50 including postage and packaging, call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897Reuse content