As international destinations become more popular, the chance of making a cultural faux pas grows. The wrong hand gesture in Brazil can insult your waiter or ruin a business deal, and the position of your chopsticks in Japan might symbolize death. How can a traveler avoid such sticky situations?
Enter Dean Foster. A master of global etiquette for over 20 years, Foster has shared his knowledge with Fortune 500 companies and written a series of books on the subject. He writes the monthly “CultureWise” column for National Geographic Traveler.
Now Foster has launched a series of apps to aid both the casual and business traveler. CultureGuide, usable on both iPhone and Android, offers critical intercultural information as well as practical and fun tips for getting the most out of a trip. To date there are 10 apps: for China, Japan, India, Dubai, Brazil, Kenya, Ireland, Turkey, Italy, and Germany. They are sold on iTunes and in the Apple App store for $9.99 each.
We caught up with Foster as he was preparing for a trip to Provence, France.
Q. What inspired you to create these apps rather than, say, writing another book?
A. I wanted to be able to bring the information to a larger audience. An app enables me to do that. For the past 25 years I’ve been providing this information to large companies. The leisure traveler and independent business traveler need the same information.
Q. Do you see these apps more as something you use on the go, or as a primer to study before a trip?
A. The app is attractive because of technology. It can be used to prepare for a trip, but we’ve also included an interactive component with access to maps, weather reports, and currency exchange rates for each county. It presents information in quick bites, bullet points, and snapshots. And the cultural content is a very effective tool.
Q. The apps cover everything from a country overview and greetings to how to behave when invited to a private home and gift-giving etiquette. Can you share some of your gift-giving tips?
A. Gift giving is an aspect of business travel that’s important to consider. If you’re traveling to China, you need to avoid giving a clock because in Chinese the word sounds like the word for death. Don’t give cutlery — it symbolizes cutting a relationship. Eight is a lucky number; four is unlucky. You might want to give something you can’t get in China. From Boston, you could give a photo album of the city.
Q. What about the leisure traveler?
A. Even the leisure traveler needs the right social gift. You don’t give cut flowers. The cutting symbolizes death. Of course, you might do that in the larger cities of Shanghai or Beijing, which are more westernized, but it’s not a typical gift and could be seen as odd. It’s best to bring sweets, or something for children, if there are any. Also, you give and receive a gift with two hands. And never use white wrapping paper. White symbolizes death, as black does here.
Q. Tell me about using the “OK” sign in Brazil. A big no-no, right?
A. Another topic the apps cover is gesture and non verbal behavior. If you use the wrong one you can get yourself in trouble. In Brazil, and other parts of South America, if you make the OK sign by joining your thumb and forefinger it’s a rude and offensive gesture. In London, if you order two beers in a pub your palm must face outward. If your palm faces inward it’s aggressive, like giving someone the middle finger in America. You could get yourself in trouble.
Q. You say when eating noodles in Japan you should slurp them . . . the noisier the better. What other food-related tips can you share?
A. Dining etiquette everywhere is so different. As a leisure traveler, you’ll feel more comfortable if you do the right thing. In Japan, ritual protocols are taken seriously. They believe the noodles taste better if you slurp them. In Seoul, you do not slurp — it’s very bad form. In Japan, you hold the rice bowl up to your mouth and shovel it in. It’s the same in China, but not in Korea. These little things can make a difference.
Q. Have you had a particularly embarrassing personal experience with cultural differences in another country?
A. In India, I was invited to a friend’s home for a traditional meal, one where you eat with your hands. I broke my bread with both hands and his kids began to giggle. He said, “I have to apologize for my children’s bad behavior. You are using your left hand.” You only eat with your right hand in India. The left hand is considered the unclean hand.
Q. Have you thought about an app for various regions of America?
A. We made a decision not to go into regional differences. When you slice and dice any country you’ll see these differences, and we do mention that in the apps, but a country as a whole is more important for a traveler.
Q. Or how about apps for Chinese tourists who come to America? The no spitting rule would be nice to share.
A. We are planning an app for international travelers. US cultural customs can be very mystifying to non-Americans. It will be in English, the common global language of communication. We have no plans yet to translate into other languages.