So you're not making as many friends as you would like in your world travels. You've practiced some local phrases, you've stopped humming "America the Beautiful" during pauses in conversations, you've even personally apologized about the drone that ruined Hashim's wedding last week. But your foreign friends still don't accept you. What's going on? Maybe you're doing one of these ...
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Nobody likes the sound of mucus being sucked into somebody's nose hole. And the worst part about sniffling is that, like the drops of water to the forehead in a round of Chinese water torture, you know it's going to happen again. After the guy sitting behind you on the bus sniffs once, you are going to spend the rest of the trip waiting for the next irregularly timed nose-vacuuming, right up until you finally snap and choke him with a Kleenex. And you'd understandably assume that people all over the world feel that way.
But in some countries, you'd be wrong: In Japan, for example, it's considered extremely rude to blow your nose in public. Instead, people will just sit for hours and sniffle away. All those Japanese Zen gardens and meditation techniques that you assumed were for attaining enlightenment? They actually grant people the inner peace to put up with the constant sniffing.
Seriously, what do you think the green parts represent?
Similar nose-blowing taboos exist in Korea. And when you think about it, this attitude isn't all that weird. If you're sitting on public transportation after an unwise visit to the taco stand outside the adult bookstore, nobody's going to toss you an adult diaper and say, "Dude, just get rid of it already," no matter what loud, unpleasant growling noises your stomach might be making. And that's what blowing your nose seems like to most people in these countries. You're ejecting a mass of gross, disease-ridden bodily fluids into a bit of paper and then putting that bit of paper back into your pocket. Frankly, I'm not surprised that the Japanese make fun of us with racist party gags.
"The Gaijin Nose: Soon with exploding snot!"
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Gifts have got to be one of the most straightforward parts of human life. You hand your present to the recipient and they say thank you, open it, and then pretend to appreciate your taste.
"I, uh, love it. Thank you."
But gift giving is one of those areas that American visitors overseas tear through like a herd of fanny-pack-wearing buffalo, leaving baffled foreigners and torn wrapping paper in their wake. In China, it's usually rude to accept a gift unless it's been offered to you three times -- anything less than that, and the gift offerer was just being polite and didn't really want to give you that panda. For Iranians, the "three times or I don't mean it" rule extends not only to gifts, but also to things like invitations to people's houses, which has almost certainly led to a lot of awkward dinner parties, movie nights, and marriages.
God help you if you down some bad hummus and need to use someone's restroom.
In India, China, and most other parts of Asia, it's also considered impolite to open a gift in front of the person who gave it to you. I'm pretty sure this doesn't apply to gifts among family members, otherwise these countries must be home to the most depressing birthday mornings ever. But at other times the "unwrap in private" rule makes perfect sense. It demonstrates to everyone involved that the important thing is the giving, not what's inside the package. Also, if you open gifts alone, you're always able to hide the brief despair in your eyes as you see the ill-fitting sweater or Christmas ska album that your closest friend chose for you and realize that you are utterly alone forever and no one will ever, ever understand you.
A foreign person is talking to you at an uncomfortably close distance. You step back. They step forward. You step back until you're pressed up against a wall and reaching for your rape alarm or anti-bad-breath machete. As the police drag your foreign acquaintance away, he shoots you a betrayed look and you realize that he was just trying to compliment your hat.
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Some hats will never have to worry about this scenario.
This problem is so common that it's been given a sciencey-sounding name: proxemics. See, the distance between two people when they're talking to each other is not universal: In some regions (like Latin America and the Mediterranean), people tend to stand closer to each other than North Americans do, while in others (like Scandinavia), they leave more space. The problem is that this kind of space-decision is entirely unconscious, so that rather than thinking to ourselves, "Oh, he's standing too far away. I will accommodate his cultural needs," we think, "This person seems standoffish and I don't know why. Probably because he's a jerk. Look at his stupid jerk face."
"If he doesn't come over here, I'm going to start waving with fewer fingers."
And that's the better scenario. Often, when faced with unfamiliar proxemics, we'll simply edge forward or backward, unconsciously trying to enforce our own culture's personal space. So the next time you're talking to a person in another country and the conversation ends with them suddenly tumbling off a cliff, you will know why.