Elbows off the table, don't chew with your mouth open, hold the door for strangers, women and children first -- all bullshit we put up with in the name of being "polite." But there's no sacred rulebook governing all of society. What's considered monocle-popping rude in one culture could be the height of courtesy in another. For example ...
Smiling is an easy way to wordlessly tell someone that you think they're all right or that you are preparing to bite them. Go to Disneyland and you'll find more of the former, go to Russia and you'll find more of the latter.
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In Russia, a polite smile is seen as artificial and strange. Russian etiquette would rather you keep a serious, even grim face, to the point where tourists think the whole nation is suffering from a serious case of Resting Bitch Face. It even extends to customer service: no "smiles are free so give one to every customer" crap here. The only time your waiter is supposed to smile is if they know you; flashing a polite grin at strangers is generally completely out of the question.
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Russians tend to associate easy smiles with negative features like insincerity, secretiveness, and unwillingness to communicate true feelings. Smiling by default is seen as a lie, as befits a country where vodka poisoning and bear maulings are considered wholesome entertainment. You actually need a reason to smile in Russia. Acceptable excuses for baring your teeth include seeing good friends, hearing a great joke, or, of course, if you're about to bite somebody.
Despite what Mr. Pink says, tipping is expected in the U.S. Normally, the only thing we worry about while tipping is whether or not the amount is enough to shove our implied financial success in the faces of our dining companions. Apparently, 2.6 percent isn't considered "baller" anymore.
That's not a concern in Japan: trying to foist more cash on your server than the bill demands just creates confusion, and the tip will usually be refused. In fact, tipping can be seen as an outright faux pas. Should you rudely attempt to shower the Japanese with your surplus cash, you won't be seen as some sort of guerrilla philanthropist; you're basically just forcing them to apologize to you in new and extravagant ways for not accepting your money.
Some Western-style hotels and tour guides in Japan are starting to introduce "service charges" in lieu of tips, but it's not traditionally the way things are done, and the practice isn't very widespread yet. As the Japanese see it, goods and services have a set price, and that price is calculated to include everything, even customer service. What the whoa now? Is this Bizarro world?! Oh Japan, you so crazy: first the used-panty vending machines, now actually having things cost what they say they cost. Truly, you are the wacky neighbor in the world's sitcom.
No matter how often you may use stolen Taco Bell napkins as toilet paper, even the biggest slob knows better than to throw trash all over the ground in public. Especially not in a restaurant or bar -- you're liable to get your face bashed in by the maitre d'. Try living that one down. It's like getting curb-stomped by a mime.
Except for in Spain, where littering can actually be considered polite.
In the iconic tapas bars of Spain, throwing trash on the floor is very much welcome. And we're not talking glorified fast-food joints here -- even the finest establishments could depress the shit out of Woodsy Owl. In Spain, the unwritten rule is that the best tapas bars are usually the ones with the most trash on the floor. That's right -- not only is rampant littering completely acceptable but leaving your garbage is like leaving a positive review.
Note that this presumably applies only to wrappers and napkins and such. Strolling in and emptying your garbage can on the bar will still likely get you drop-kicked by a little guy in a tuxedo.
Fancy dinners are a social minefield. Still, once you get past the whole "seven kinds of fork" thing, they're not really all that different from a regular dinner: you shovel dead animal and plant matter into your face, dissolve it with saliva, then start turning it to poop right in front of God and everybody. It's not like there's a complicated playbook to memorize. Just don't spit directly on your host, don't take your pants off unless specifically invited to, and don't down every drink in one giant gulp like it's a frat party.
Well, except if you're dining in Georgia (the country, not the state ... or font), then you can go ahead and do that last thing all you like. In Georgia, toasts are taken very, very seriously. They consist of elaborately assigned, 10- to 15-minute speeches, after which it's tradition to down your whole glass of wine in one go.
In Georgia, wine is merely a device for toasting and is not supposed to be touched outside of toasts at all. So Georgians did what any clever alcoholic would and found a loophole: now they toast nonstop, downing entire glasses of wine as soon as the standing guy rambles to a stop. And they're not necessarily small glasses, either. If the hosts are obeying strict Georgian tradition, they will fill a goat's horn with wine and give it to the honored guest to chug. As the foreign visitor to this hypothetical party, dear reader, that means you.
One word of advice: goats can have some pretty big horns. Maybe you better get a padlock for those pants, friend.
In America, it's completely acceptable to jokingly poke fun at your friends, tease your siblings, or scream, "I'LL DEVOUR THE VERY CONCEPT OF YOUR DREAMS!" right in your boss' face. Serious insults, though, are generally reserved for conflicts with people outside our Monkeysphere. But not so for the Masai, an ethnic group that can be found in Kenya and Tanzania. For them, insulting people and even straight-up spitting on their children is the very epitome of courtesy.
When a Masai sees a child he has never encountered before, he will immediately spit on the kid and state: "This child is bad." Obviously, that's what we all do -- but the Masai don't even look around for cops first. There are various welcome ceremonies involving elderly men spitting on small children after being greeted by them.
There's actually a completely benevolent reason behind these misanthropic antics. It is believed that explicitly praising the baby will cause it to fall ill, so they think, "This child is good," to themselves, while outwardly cursing it. As for spitting, it's seen as a sign of goodwill and best wishes: old men spit in their palms before shaking hands with younger soldiers in order to convey their blessings.
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And if we ever meet the drunken, curmudgeonly Masai who first came up with that brilliant cover story after assaulting a playground and some soldiers, we're going to shake his hand.
Or maybe a polite nod will do the trick.
Rachel P. has a weekly webcomic called Problems that isn't very polite in any country.
For actions to avoid doing overseas, check out 7 Innocent Gestures That Can Get You Killed Overseas. And then check out 24 Basic Goddamn Rules We Should Start Enforcing Online.