You're not in Kansas Anymore
In my travels, I have had the privilege to observe, and encounter, a multitude of differences between our way of doing things and how people do things in other countries. These differences can include table manners, interacting with someone, and general behavior in public.
I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not an expert on this. The writers of the book “Emily Post – Etiquette in Society…” have nothing to fear from me as a competitor. These are simply observations I have made, and heard from other travel professionals.
The most basic bit of advice I can give is this: The customs and ways of doing things in a foreign country are not strange, weird, or wrong. They are just different.
Learn a few Phrases in the Language you are visiting
Americans in general are at a disadvantage when traveling. Most Americans know only one language – English. And further, they only know American English and all of the slang that goes with it.
On the other hand, most Europeans will know at least their native language and English as well.
That said, you should not approach someone and just presume that they know English. Just learn a few basic phrases like “Bonjour” or “Guten Tag”. These are the French and German phrases of saying “Good day” or “Hello”. This is is especially important for being in France. Many Americans believe the French are rude or somewhat hostile when speaking with them. The fact is, the French, maybe more than any other country, are offended by someone who walks up to them and just starts talking to them, without at least a greeting and presuming that the person speaks English.
Don't get too personal
One thing you learn when studying different languages is that many of them have a formal and an informal version of the word “you”. This distinction, while being relaxed somewhat in different settings still carries a lot of weight.
The general rule of thumb is, if you are speaking to an adult in their language, you should use the formal version of the word “you”. In German, the formal version of “you” is “Sie” (Zee) and the informal version is “du” (doo). In French, they are “Vous”(voo) and “tu” (tew). When speaking to an adult, always use the formal version unless they say otherwise. In Germany, it is actually a compliment that someone will tell you that you can address them with the informal version. However, when speaking to a child, they may laugh at you if you address them formally (little buggers are the same everywhere).
The same is true when addressing someone by their first name. Americans in general are very used to using someone’s first name, and consider addressing someone as “Mr” or “Mrs” as too stiff. But, other cultures can consider this as rude.
The other thing to remember is that Americans are considered as being far too personal. Even questions when speaking to someone such as “how many kids do you have?” may be considered a bit invasive.
One thing I will always remember when I first started learning German, is that in German society, you may work closely with someone for several years, and you will still address them as “Herr Schmidt” or “Frau Werner”. You may not know anything about their family or where they live. These customs are loosening up, especially since they know how uncomfortable Americans are with it.
My best advice – when speaking with someone, first start with a genial “hello” in their language and keep your conversation somewhat formal. Let them break the ice on formality.
Dinner in a Restaurant is an Event, not a Meal
In many European cultures, you will find the following things:
First, dinner will be later than we are used to. Americans will often eat dinner between 6 and 7. In many European countries, it will start much later. In France and Spain, many restaurants will not serve dinner before 8 PM.
Second, plan to be there for awhile. A four hour dinner is not uncommon.
Third, your server may not approach your table after you have been served until you signal them. And, you will have to ask them for the bill. Europeans find our habit of eating quickly and being given the tab without asking as extremely rude.
Fourth, be careful how you place your silverware on your plate after you have finished eating. Place the utensils side by side. If you cross them – especially if you have left food on the plate – is a signal that the meal was unacceptable.
Fifth, do not speak to loudly or boisterously in a restaurant. Keep it unobtrusive.
Sixth, in a German Gasthaus (sort of like a pub), be aware if a table has a sign over it that says “Stammtisch”. Do not sit at this table unless invited. This is a table reserved for the most loyal patrons.
Last, and please remember this: Do not snap your fingers at a waiter, and in France, do not address them as “garçon”. This is the French word for “boy”.
I have to admit, that this is one of the most perplexing parts of travel for Americans, and the rules are not consistent.
Essentially the thing to keep in mind is that Americans are considered as being excessive in this area, and we seem to be adding more to the confusion. The general rule I would recommend is, as a rule, keep the tip down to rounding up to the next 5 Euro’s or British Pound, but always research this before traveling to a different country.
You will stand out as an american without even trying
One of the best examples of this happened to me in Düsseldorf. It was a Saturday morning, and I was standing in line in a Starbucks, with at least four other people in front of me. For each of these people, the Barista addressed them in German. As soon as I walked up to the counter, without saying a word, the Barista looked at me and in perfect English said “May I help you, Sir?”
Our telltale signs are our modes of dress, our shoes and even our haircuts.
Just be nice
After reading this, you may be thinking that you are going to offend someone just by being yourself. I wouldn’t worry about this too much. I tend to think about it this way. What if someone walked into your house without being invited, sits down and says “hey, I’d like a cup of coffee”. Instead, just be nice, friendly, and act as a guest – because that’s what you are.