by Miriam Meijer

man bowing to womanThe signals that we send out by the way we are dressed and behave are picked up and interpreted, often unconsciously and sometimes even inaccurately, by the people around us. Respect for the ways in which others live translates into greater comfort and safety for you as a traveler.

Foreign embassies and consulates are there to help you if you have questions about their country. It is part of their business to promote tourism and they can suggest appropriate clothing and other details you should know before you visit their country.

Calling cards are very useful for both social and business purposes. Women use their full name on their cards, with the prefix "Dr.," "Mrs.," "Miss," or "Ms.," depending on how they wish to be addressed. First names do not always indicate the gender of the person: Lynn or Chris in the United States, Claude in France, Sabaah in the Middle East, and Tashi or Dawa in Tibet all can be either male or female. Nowadays, in addition to the address and telephone number, you should also add a fax number, an e-mail address, a World Wide Web address.

In introductions, a younger person is introduced first to the older person, the man first to the woman, and the lower-ranked to the higher-ranked person. When you introduce yourself, pronounce your name clearly and make sure you understand other people's names. A name is someone's most personal possession. Misspelling or mispronouncing people's names makes it hard for people to relate in a meaningful way. There is nothing wrong with asking someone how their name is properly pronounced. Create a trick in your head to help you remember how to pronounce the name, e.g., a meaningful word that rhymes with it.

Pay special attention to official titles. In the United States, only medical doctors, and sometimes academicians, are referred to as "Doctor." The German-speaking countries, however, adore titles. Lawyers, dentists, academicians are all addressed as "Doktor." A professor is addressed orally as "Professor Schmidt;" on a letter one writes "Herrn Prof. Dr. Schmidt," and his wife may even be addressed as "Frau Professor Schmidt" or "Frau Professor."

The United States seems to be the only country where there is so much enthusiasm for the use of the first name after the first meeting. Most people in the world are offended if someone calls them by their first name, especially after having just met them. In Japan, it takes many years before one uses first names. In many countries, it is the woman who allows the man to call her by her first name; not the other way around. A younger person never takes the initiative to call an older person by his or her first name. The initiative should always come from the older person, male or female.

In Europe and the United States, people make eye contact, looking the other person straight into the eye. This acknowledges their presence and shows that we are focusing on them and are listening to what they have to say. A wandering eye would be impolite and distracting, although prolonged eye contact would be considered disturbing. In other countries, a straight look into the eyes of another is considered rude and impertinent. In Japan, direct eye contact is impolite and intimidating. In yet other places, the status of the individual determines whether one has to look down in respect or may look directly into the other person's face as an equal.

Outgoing behavior by a western woman toward men can be interpreted as completely improper for her gender by traditional or religious people. In Islamic countries, public displays of affection between men and women are looked down upon, and even punishable in some countries. It is best for the female traveler to avoid direct eye contact. In Indonesia, for example, a foreign woman teacher must not shake hands with her students even when she hands them their diploma.

It depends on the country whether you extend your hand for a handshake as a gesture of greeting, leave-taking, congratulations, or agreement. In New Zealand, all business meetings begin and end with a handshake. Women are now included in that handshake ceremony. In Great Britain, friends and families do not greet each other with a handshake, but business people do. The younger generation in Continental Europe has begun to replace the handshake with merely a verbal greeting. In some countries people never greet with handshakes but bow towards each other, with a serious expression on their face, the depth of the bow symbolizing exactly the degree of respect they have for each other's place in society. Other people raise their hands in front of their chest, placing the palms toward each other, and greet the other with a warm smile, accompanied by a word of greeting. Still others embrace warmly, and in some countries men clap their hand on each other's shoulders.

Different cultures have different "zones of comfort" between individuals. People become defensive if they feel that their own "private space" is being invaded. Europeans and Americans stand opposite each other with about two feet of open space between them. The Japanese like much more than two feet of space between two persons, even though they otherwise brush each other in their crowded streets and trains. In Latin America, Eastern Europe, and in France, people like to stand very close to each other and often reach out to the other person to touch an arm or the shoulder. Non-verbal gestures can vary enormously between countries and can be completely misinterpreted.

In Northern Europe and in Japan, punctuality, i.e. to arrive exactly on time to an event, is considered to be absolutely essential. When you are invited for an 8:00 p.m. dinner, you may ring the doorbell between 8:00 p.m. and 8:10 p.m. Arriving earlier is never acceptable; arriving late is the height of rudeness. Punctuality is less of an issue in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, in Latin America, and in Africa. Tropical people tend to eat late when the temperature is cooler.

If you are an American traveling abroad, remember that other nationalities do not necessarily appreciate the American custom of "comfortable travel clothes." Since many Islamic countries are in very warm regions, you may be inclined to wear shorts or short sleeves, but conservative dress is the most basic and important way to show respect. People who are insensitive to the basic dress code of the society in which they are traveling will offend or confuse the people with whom they interact.

In the western hemisphere the dress code is still a suit, shirt, and tie for the man, and a dress for the woman. The pantsuit for women is generally accepted in the United States (Hillary Rodham Clinton favors them), but in many major cities in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, where the western-style business attire is otherwise established, pantsuits are nevertheless not acceptable for women. There are many other appropriate clothing styles other than the western-style business attire, reflecting the folklore of a nation and the tribal or ethnic cultures of a people. Outside of the tropics, toplessness and nudism in certain select places in Europe will startle a lot of Americans. But in most countries mini skirts and two-piece bathing suits are interpreted as provocative (sluttish). In the Middle East, western women must cover their shoulders and their arms.

Visits to churches, mosques, and temples require a headdress and clothes that cover the arms and shoulders; short pants are not permitted. Modest covering is usually required for both genders. Many countries do not appreciate or tolerate religious preaching and you take a risk in even discussing religion. Visits to mosques are a privilege for foreigners, and may have extensive rules to follow; often women are separated from men, and menstruating women are banned entirely.

If you come from a developed country where women have achieved a large amount of equality and you visit a country where women remain in a subordinate role, it is in your own best interest to abide by the rules of what is proper for women in the host country. In western nations, women drive, stay alone in a hotel, or are friendly without a second thought. In many developing nations, however, men and women continue to work separately, or women do not work at all. In some countries women are never seen in a business meeting, at conventions, at a business dinner, or at other social gatherings.

Westerners stereotype Muslim men as oppressors of women while Muslims in turn often find western men and women immodest and lacking in spirituality (few HIV cases have been reported in the Middle East). Particulars vary from country to country (from modest modern dress being appropriate in Moroccan beaches to very careful covering in Saudi Arabia or Algeria), but women travelers should aim for modesty in both clothing and conduct. Many female travelers find that a long skirt and long-sleeved shirt of light material serve well. Loose fitting pants with long coats or long shirts may also work. Islamic women tend to avoid tight or form-fitting clothing that shows a woman's curves, and are careful of how much skin is showing. While a "chador" (the full covering) is usually not necessary, avoid big flashy jewelry, low necklines, and high hemlines. Bring a black scarf—particularly if you are a blond or longhaired woman—because covering can secure you peace.

Women visiting an Islamic region have to be more aware of their actions. It may be uncommon (and in some countries illegal) for local women to travel alone (that used to be the situation in Europe and America as well). Some hotels in Muslim countries do not allow women to stay alone. Higher-end hotels are generally more accepting of women travelers. It is much safer to travel in pairs or groups, especially in countries where women are expected to remain in the domestic/household sphere (as in Saudi Arabia). Where bicycling or driving a car in public is illegal, women take cabs and sit in the back seat of cabs. Where the women's sphere is predominantly the home, cafes may be filled mostly with men, although many restaurants have family sections.

The European custom of having many utensils laid out for a sit-down dinner with courses means that the utensils farthest away from the plate are the ones to be used first (for the first course). The dessert utensils are placed above the plate. The smaller wine glass is for the white wine, the slightly bigger one for the red wine. In the United States, there may be a third glass, the largest, for ice water. In Europe, the third glass will be for dessert wine or champagne. Americans and Europeans use the knife and fork very differently. The French use their bread as a utensil in addition to their eating utensils. They also dunk bread in their coffee for breakfast. Never leave chopsticks in a rice bowl, e.g., in Korea, because they resemble burning sticks of incense in an incense bowl, a sign of death. Some nationalities (Afghanistan, Ethiopia) eat their food using only the fingers of the right hand, without eating utensils, although they may use some kind of starch or bread to pick up the food.

Americans increasingly hold office luncheons even in their international dealings. Participants at all-day meetings may break at lunchtime and convert the conference table into a lunch table. A "brown bag luncheon" means that the participants bring their own lunch in paper bags. "Open bar" means that drinks are available for free; "cash bar" means that you have to pay for your beverages, especially alcohol. An invitation to a "no-host dinner" at a restaurant or a hotel means that all participants pay for their own drinks and dinner (also known as "Dutch Treat"), although this custom is not popular outside of the United States.

In many countries, smoking is part of daily life, especially for men. While the habit is still considered a stigma of "bad girls" in Asia, smoking rates are increasing among young women. People smoke at home, in restaurants, in the market place, and more and more frequently, while walking in the streets. The United States in recent years underwent a complete cultural reversal towards smoking. A federal law prohibits smoking in all public buildings and workers exit their buildings to smoke. Restaurants and hotels have smoking and non-smoking sections or rooms. Nowadays in American homes, you really must ask if you may smoke before you take out a cigarette or cigar (people can get upset about this). In case of doubt, abstain from smoking.

Do not photograph police and military installations and personnel; industrial structures, including harbor, rail, and airport facilities; border areas; and scenes of civil disorder or other public disturbance in a host country. Photographers should ask permission before taking pictures. Individuals sometimes do not want to be photographed for religious reasons or they simply do not like it for personal reasons. In the United States, the Amish people do not wish to be photographed. Monks in Asian countries generally do not like to be photographed. It is risky to use your camera in Israel on a Saturday. Photography in churches, during a religious service, is not permitted, even if it is the most splendid architectural building. Museums have restrictions, as do other places (theater). Village children may beg you to take their photo. Tribe members may allow you to take photographs but they may also ask you to make a financial contribution. Sometimes the global youth would prefer you to send them copies.

There are more telephones than ever. Before making a telephone call, consider the hour of the day and whether it is considered appropriate to call at that time from the other person's perspective. Always first ask if it is a convenient time to talk. It is very impolite to accept telephone calls while you are in a meeting or have visitors. Some callers hate "Call Waiting" interruptions: be brief and very polite if you take a second call. The use of cellular phones may be restricted, e.g. restaurants and theaters in Germany and Hong Kong. On airplanes cellular phones must be turned off.

Some countries have restrictions against exporting certain items, e.g. their cultural treasures, and ban all kinds of things that may be accepted elsewhere in the world or in the United States: firearms, certain drugs (even legal ones), and political literature. Drugs from hashish to heroin, marijuana to mescaline, cocaine to quaaludes, to designer drugs like ecstacy can give you jail time (one-third of the arrests of Americans overseas are on drug-related charges). A number of countries (e.g., Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico and the Philippines) have enacted more stringent drug laws that impose mandatory jail sentences for individuals convicted of possessing even small amounts of marijuana or cocaine for personal use. A growing number of countries (e.g., Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, Thailand, Saudi Arabia) carry the death penalty. There has been an increase in the number of women arrested abroad as drug couriers. Do not carry a package for anyone and do not let anyone pack your suitcases for you. Books and magazines tolerated in one country are not always acceptable elsewhere. Customs officials may confiscate your reading material or you may find yourself locked up for transporting indecent, pornographic materials.

Different strokes for different folks! Remember that—regardless of your personal preferences—cross-cultural awareness of etiquette is a powerful tool to avoid insult, offense, or humiliation whenever you "go global" in physical or cyber travel.


King, Ariel. "Islam and the Female Traveler,"

McDonald, Christel G. Protocol and Etiquette: Guidelines for Citizen Diplomats in Multi-Track Diplomacy (Washington, D.C.: The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, 1997).

United States State Department


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