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Six Surprising Int’l. Etiquette Rules

The International Man

by Larry Kulchawik

With a halt on tradeshow activities worldwide for the past few months, some countries are returning back to hosting shows quicker than others. In many countries, a “new normal” will be established regarding health precautions and new ways to replace the handshake to greet guests at the exhibit stand. In preparation to travel internationally again soon, here are some interesting international rules of etiquette.

In Russia, Never Shake Someone’s Hand in a Doorway

Every country has its own legends and superstitions, and Russia is no exception. Here, it is considered a faux pas to kiss, hug, or shake someone’s hand while standing in a doorway. This etiquette rule has its origin in the stories of the Russian “house spirit,” which is supposed to live in the threshold of every home. Because of this, it is viewed as incredibly unlucky to bridge the gap between outdoors and indoors by shaking hands across a threshold. To avoid this bad luck, you should fully enter the house before greeting its occupants—or the occupants of the house should step outside before greeting you.

Don’t Give a Thumbs Up in These Countries

If you aren’t fluent in the language of the country you’re visiting, it’s easy to rely on body language and hand gestures to get your message across. But be careful when you do this. While you may think a certain gesture is universal, it often isn’t—in fact, you might be communicating the opposite of what you meant. Take the thumbs up—a sign in many places of agreement, happiness or satisfaction. But if you’re traveling in Russia, Australia, the Middle East, West Africa or Greece, avoid this gesture at all costs.It’s the equivalent of the middle finger and definitely won’t make you any friends.

In India, Text—Don’t Call—To See if a Business is Open

If you are one of the many people who feel anxious making phone calls, this etiquette rule will probably come as a welcome relief. Although many western businesses rely heavily on phone calls for any kind of professional communication, this is not the case in India. Here, many businesses don’t have landlines at all and instead have switched entirely over to cell phones. This switch means that instead of, for example, calling a business to see if it is open or to make an order, you would simply text them instead. Business owners may even react with surprise and confusion if you try to call them.

Never Drink a Cappuccino After Noon in Italy

They take their coffee seriously in Italy—and if you want to fit in, it’s important to learn the local customs around this beverage. One thing that will instantly make you stand out as a tourist is ordering the wrong drink at the wrong time. In Italy, it is incredibly rare for anyone to order a cappuccino after noon. While you might think this has to do with the caffeine content, that is not the case—rather, it has to do with the milk content of this drink. In Italy, many people put a great deal of emphasis on nutrition and digestion; milk is thought to ruin digestion and is never consumed after a meal (exception for breakfast). If you want to blend in (and avoid any raised eyebrows from your barista) avoid any milk-based drinks in the afternoon.

Eye Contact Isn’t Always a Sign of Politeness

Although many western cultures view eye contact as a sign that you are listening, engaged, and polite, this is not true around the world. While avoiding eye contact—or making minimal eye contact—may seem rude to someone who grew up in North America or Europe, certain cultures in Asia and Africa have the opposite opinion. In many Asian cultures, extended eye contact is seen as a rude challenge to authority. In China or Japan, it would be normal for children not to make eye contact with adults, or for younger people not to make eye contact with their bosses; rather than being seen as submissive, this indicates respect.

Never Put a Fork in Your Mouth in Thailand

Although forks are used during meals in Thailand, you should never use one to scoop up your food and put it in your mouth. Instead, meals in Thailand come with a fork and a spoon; the spoon is held in your left hand, and the fork is held in your right. While eating any sort of rice-based meal, you should only use your fork to push food onto your spoon, which is the primary utensil. The only time it is acceptable to put a fork in your mouth is when you’re eating food that isn’t served with rice—for example, slices of fruit. However, it’s best to err on the side of caution to make sure you don’t commit a faux pas; follow the lead of your fellow diners.

 Larry Kulchawik is the head of Larry Kulchwawik Consulting and author of Trade Shows from One Country to the Next. For more info, visit

This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Exhibit City News, p. 16. For original layout, visit



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