Examples of the “problems” as experienced by people when meeting other Europeans.

© Drawings by Antonia Docheva




1.1. Forms of address

1.2. Greeting / drawing sb’s attention

1.3. Kissing / handshaking / bowing rules

1.4. Chatting up / starting conversation

1.5. Talking to people / conversation topics




2.1. Queuing rules

2.2. Eating / food / pubs/ bars and restaurants

2.3. Toilets

2.4. Money / tips / paying / sharing cost / showing wealth

2.5. Shops / services / customer service

2.6. Transportation / moving around / directions

  • Talking while travelling
  • Drivers vs. Passers-by
  • Paying for your ticket
  • Intimacy on public transport
  • How to stop a bus
  • Giving directions
  • Claiming your seat in trains
  • Parking

2.7. Out in the street

  • Littering
  • Smoking / asking for cigarettes
  • Trying to be helpful to foreigners
  • Other

2.8. Sharing accommodation / living side by side

  • Students’ hostels / halls of residence / students’ exchanges
  • Camping sites / stopovers etc
  • Neighbours




3.1. Visiting and hosting locals

  • Being invited
  • Being entertained
  • Gifts
  • When to leave

3.2. Birthdays / weddings / funerals / other celebrations / family life

  • Birthdays
  • Name days
  • Weddings
  • Funerals
  • Attitude towards children / babies




4.1. Meetings

4.2. Working relations

4.3. Public offices

4.4. Other




5.1. Being a teacher

5.2. Being a student

5.3. Teacher – student relations

5.4. Other




6.1. Using the local language / using international languages

6.2. Gestures / body language / distance

6.3. Linguistic pitfalls / "false friends" / outdated idioms / pronunciation

6.4. Other communication problems

  • promises
  • secrecy
  • complimenting
  • honesty / white lies
  • upbraiding
  • problems in writing




7.1. How thinking in terms of stereotypes can get you into trouble

7.2. What it feels like when people stereotype you

7.3. What do others think? How people perceive other nationalities.







Here you will see how "Just being warm" can seem intrusive and "Respecting other people's privacy" can seem cold.


1.1. Forms of address


I (Dutchman) took part in an international meeting lasting 3 days. We all used English. At the beginning we discussed our "rules of conduct", deciding among other things to use first names. Two German participants (male, age 55+) who had known one another for years said they were happy to comply, (even though as it turned out later they were not on a first-name basis together). So everyone called them Ulrich and Jürgen, but the two gentlemen themselves, when referring to one another, went to great lengths to avoid having to use those names. So instead of saying "Ulrich is right", Jürgen would say: "I agree", or "My neighbour is right". (reported by Dutch man)


I (Belgian) had once problems with a German woman with whom I had to work together on a book. I didn’t know her very well, had actually met her only once and wanted to address her in a letter asking her whether we could work together on the book. As I didn’t know her very well, I tried to be very polite. I knew she had written a PhD but didn’t know whether she was a professor at her university or whether she had some other status. So I put prof. dr. + her name on the letter, thinking it wouldn’t harm if she wasn’t a professor. I signed the letter just writing my name, without a title. She was really upset because I ‘overestimated’ her and ‘underestimated’ myself, in her opinion. But I was just trying to be polite and I didn’t have the habit of writing my titles under every letter as I didn’t think it useful or necessary. Anyway, also afterwards it remained really difficult to get along well and very often this was based on our different feeling about ‘formal’ and ‘informal’.


In Denmark most people address each other with “du” (you). In Germany most people address each other with “Sie” (polite way to address people) and first want to say “du”. This is quite a problem for young people, because a similar Danish expression “De” mostly is used when addressing royal people or in business relations. Therefore young Danes have a lot of problems in dealing with the German culture specific on that topic, because many Germans regard that way of addressing as rude an impolite and as an example of open disrespect. The most ironic example of that specific German intercultural trend is allegedly chancellor Kohl in a situation, where he wanted to be on friendly terms with Margaret Thatcher, saying: You can say you to me (German: Sie können du zu mir sagen). (reported by Danish man)


The Germans are said to be a bit strange and accordingly they have some quite strange customs. You might say drinking a toast to friendship is not really that strange. Well, it can be. What you need is just enough alcohol and the likewise strange German language. If you have ever heard that the German language is slightly complicated: well, it might be true. There are two translations of the word "you": "Sie" would be more reserved and respectful, and "du" is more personal when addressing someone. Sometimes, when you are in a pub or at a party, and you meet someone you do not know or you are not friends with, it can happen that you are drunk enough to drink a toast to friendship with them. You and this other person take your drink in your right hands, cross your right arms and drink from your own drink. Sometimes you kiss each other, in whatever way, which probably depends on the amount of alcohol you have consumed. This is a promise of eternal friendship and it also means that you will say "du" to each other afterwards. (we have the same custom in Poland - probably borrowed from Germans; it has even a German-sounding name "bruderszaft"; Poles who drink "bruderszaft" address one another informally with the pronoun "ty" or use their first names instead of the formal "prosze pana" (for males) and "prosze pani" (for females) - BJ)


I was surprised to be addressed by a middle-aged female bus conductor in Manchester as love. To me that sounded far too familiar/intimate, but it appeared to be normal in that area. (reported by Dutchman)


I (Polish) find it much easier to use first names when I speak English with foreigners (Europeans and Americans) than when I speak either English or Polish with other Poles (especially when they’re much older or if I am their subordinate).


I think it’s a bit strange that my Swiss cousins use first names when talking to their parents, relatives, colleagues or even strangers. (reported by a Polish woman)


When a 30-year old Englishman learning Polish met a 60-year-old couple, he asked them about their first names and later he addressed them by their first names. The couple felt uncomfortable and thought the Englishman was cheeky. (You don’t address older or unknown people by their first names in Poland.)


1.2. Greeting / drawing sb’s attention


Spanish people seem to greet one another more often than the Polish. Even when the Spanish people go out for an hour or two they say their goodbyes and hello’s. Spanish people seem to use greetings to show that they are somewhere around, within the hearing distance. In Poland many people believe that one should say “Hello” and “goodbye” to the same person only once during the day. (reported by a Polish woman in Spain)


On a trip to Italy we were a bit scared when unknown people greeted us with wide opened arms, e.g. at a pizza bar. That was the way some of them said "hi". (reported by Poles)


In Germany and Austria (and generally in Western Europe) greeting strangers in public places (hotel lobbies, lifts, check-out counters) is much more common than in Poland and is a sign of politeness and good manners. In Poland nowadays it is also becoming a standard but still a lot of people consider it not as a sign of politeness but rather as a kind of unnecessary, artificial ritual or simply a nuisance. For instance many Poles would say that expecting a person working at a check-out in a huge supermarket to greet each and every customer and say ‘Thank you” is more of a burden and has nothing to do with politeness. (reported by a Polish man in Austria and Germany)


The Swiss who go hiking (‘Wanderungen’ - traditional country walks) always greet one another with the word ‘Gruezi’. In Poland there is also a tradition of greeting one another but only on mountain trails; in the ‘lowlands’ hikers rather do not greet people they don’t know. (reported by a Polish man in Switzerland)


A Pole liked it when her French neighbours greeted each other, started a short conversation and wished everybody “have a good day” when they were about to go (France).


Poles, when asked how they’re doing, tend to complain quite a lot, e.g. about their health problems, which sounds pretty strange to Americans.


In some remote, rural areas in Spain some people (apparently only those less educated and of country origin) use a non-verbal way of drawing someone’s attention – they make a ‘tssssst” sound. This sound is used for instance to draw the attention of another villager across the street. A Pole hearing suddenly ‘tsssst’ sounds around him may feel rather perplexed. In Poland a similar sound is used to mean “be silent!” (reported by a Polish man in Spain)


1.3. kissing / handshaking / bowing rules


Number of kisses with different cultures - at a certificate giving ceremony in Romania, a UK BC director joked a lot about kissing women and giving certificates - French women 3 times, Russian women - ... times and so on and not kissing some women from some cultures at all. (reported by UK-born man)


In Belgium friends and family kiss each other on the cheeks as a greeting (left, right, left). These vary from real kisses to air kisses. In Spain people kiss even more but only 2 times (left, right). This means that Belgians either end up with their pouted lips in the air, or that you end up giving 4 kisses. (reported by a Flemish Belgian in Spain)


Kissing is a problem. In Belgium people usually kiss 3 times but young people tend to kiss once when they meet on the street. I never know whether I have to kiss abroad or not. I have the feeling it isn’t much appreciated in eastern Europe, but even in Holland, I simply don’t know.


In France, when people meet, they most often kiss each other three times, or even more if good friends instead of shaking hands.


I don't understand the etiquette of kisses - particularly French people - the quantity of kisses apparently reflects the level of intimacy or something. Weird. (reported by an English man)


A German man, visiting his Polish friends, was quite puzzled when he saw a Polish man kiss the hands of the Polish women to whom he was being introduced (which is still customary for Polish men who want to be perceived as gentlemen). He was even more surprised, if not shocked, when the same Pole kissed his hand too (which happened definitely by accident as the German man was surrounded by the ladies).


French people think that we (Bulgarians) are too "cold" because we shake hands, instead of making kisses.


My sort-of cousin Julia (daughter of my aunt’s former husband and his first wife) is Bilingual English/ French and since the divorce between her English father and French mother has lived in France with her mother. For a period of years she spent much time in England also with her father and so we got to know her quite well as a young girl. Raised with a mixture of English reserve and an active understanding of French social customs it was often a little difficult for me to gauge, especially a decade ago what was the appropriate gesture to be made towards her. With respect to the custom of greeting or departing with three kisses to each other, given on alternating cheeks, I once, upon having the little lass approach me, made an assumption that embarrassment would be caused in some measure to both parties by partaking in this gesture as we then were and so I declined to supply the appropriate kisses. The look of rejection, upset & I believe subsequent tears that swiftly spread across the little girls face is quite shattering, even in recollection, today, and I’m quite convinced that she has only just come round to forgiving me this snub, more than ten years on when I met her earlier last year and made sure I applied the appropriate puckering. (reported by British man)


Macedonians hug to greet each other, even unknown people in the same company.


1.4. Chatting up / starting conversation


 A Polish girl found it very touching when some rather old-fashioned looking Frenchmen she did not know very politely asked if she would like to have a coffee with them, or if she could give them her phone number, or even if they could buy her some flowers.


Once I went to a bus stop in one of the Bulgarian Black Sea resorts and saw a family of four already waiting. They needed some information and, while helping them out, their accent told me they were English. However, to be PC (Politically Correct), I asked, "Excuse me, are you British?" The answer was snapped out without delay and at a great speed, "We're more than British!" Puzzled at the woman's response, I failed to carry on the conversation. Just wished them a nice day. Possibly they had been waiting for a bus too long.


In Swiss pubs, bars or discos it seems to be extremely rare to make acquaintances or to have a conversation with a stranger. Acquaintances are made mainly at private parties where you are being introduced to other people by your friends or by the people you already know. In Poland it is more acceptable to chat up a stranger in pubs, bars or discos. (reported by a Polish man in Switzerland)



1.5. Talking to people / conversation topics


A couple of years ago, I happened to make a couple of single-serving German friends for an evening whilst quaffing mulled wine at the Christmas market. Clearly glad to have found a little home away from home the two guys were already fairly well toasted on a selection of their favourite beers etc… somehow or other literature eeked its way into the conversation at some point or other at which point Hans suddenly got extremely excited at the prospect of doing a bit of Bard-bashing. Slamming his beer mug on the long-table in a booming (and only slightly slurred) voice he commenced the debate of Shakespeare Vs Goethe by vehemently stating that “COMPARED TO THE GREAT GOETHE, SHAKESPEARE IS LIKE A LITTLE SCHOOLBOY SAT IN THE CORNER OF THE CLASSROOM, PISSING IN HIS PANTS!” This subtle piece of comparative literary criticism was delivered with such force, that despite a few stifled giggles the point was not debated much further, as an Englishman in the presence of pissed Germans, my spine gave out in the name of retaining cordiality in a rather British, Fawlty Towers, John Cleese “RIGHT, NOBODY MENTION THE WAR!!!” kinda way. (reported by British man)


I am astonished that people from Denmark can talk about being homosexual so openly. A couple of months ago several students from Copenhagen came to my university, and one of them didn’t mind telling other students that she lived with her girlfriend and that they’re planning to get married. She claimed it’s a regular topic in Denmark. (reported by a Polish student)


At the end of a conversation: in southern Europe they round up the conversation very ‘nicely’ with some nice ‘formulas’ indicating the conversation is nearly finished. In Germany and Holland it’s often stopped really abruptly. As a Belgian, I am probably a bit in between, but it has happened to me more than once that I find people are not polite or friendly at the end of a conversation in Germany and Holland. As one Dutch woman once said to me when I mentioned this: “you are oversensitive”. Afterwards I realized it had to do with conversation habits.


Discussion culture. In southern and eastern Europe people wait more often until spoken to and asked for their opinion. English, Belgians, Dutch speak immediately and (try to) think while speaking. (reported by a Belgian woman)


Southern European people often say they have the impression that Belgian, Dutch, German people are always angry when they talk: they use a lot of small and short words and are really direct (cf. above). In Spain and Italy there is a lot of talking ‘around’ the subject. 


Weddings might be one of the ‘in’ conversation topics for many Romanian women. Usually women in different countries are interested in this topic but in Romania many women seem to particularly enjoy discussing the details of their own or their friends’ weddings even with people they do not know very well. They might even ask you to watch with them video recordings of wedding ceremonies. There seems to be an overabundance of shops with wedding accessories in Romania.
A greater prominence of wedding ceremonies in public consciousness might be true not only of Romania but also of some other countries in the southern part of Europe (southern Italy? Spain? Balkans?) (reported by a Polish woman in Romania)


The improvement and expansion of the country’s railway network seems to figure high in the list of Swiss conversation topics. The media give extensive coverage to such events as construction of new tunnels or modernization of railway tracks. (reported by a Polish man in Switzerland)


No matter how much work they have, the Swiss will keep telling you they are constantly overwhelmed with work. Even if they do not have much to do, the Swiss seem to feel obliged to make the impression that they are constantly busy and stressed. Work seems to be higher on the list of conversation topics in Switzerland than in Poland. Work seems to preoccupy Swiss minds to a larger degree. For this reason the Swiss go to bed earlier so that they have more energy to work the next day. In Poland people seem to be a bit more relaxed in this respect. (reported by a Polish man in Switzerland)


A Polish girl worked as an au-pair for a French family. They took her for dinner to the wife’s mother. At some point, the woman started talking about he experiences during the 2nd World War. As she continued, she got herself worked up and her experience was getting more and more heroic, martyr-like and her voice confrontational. This went on for about half an hour. Both the girl and the woman seemed upset and aggravated. On the girl’s leaving, the woman said that she didn’t really enjoy having her round, but she had to do it for her daughter. Nobody seemed to be bothered by what she’d said. (I have also experienced foreigners treating the 2nd World War as a must/polite/sophisticated /relevant subject especially when being introduced to other people. Poles would certainly not talk about the 2nd World War of their own accord.)


There was this international project meeting, with some 6 people from only three countries: Finland, Bulgaria and Holland. Most of us had not met before. The first contact was a dinner in the restaurant of the Bulgarian hotel where everyone except the Bulgarians stayed. We had a most enjoyable evening, because the main topic of conversation turned out to be “intercultural communication”. We all delighted in asking one another questions such as: “What do you say in your country when you are rather late for a movie and have to go to your seat in the middle with all other seats being occupied? Do you turn your bum to the people already sitting there or your front? And do you say something like: Excuse me? And do you say that to everyone or to two or three people at the same time?” It contributed greatly to the friendly and relaxed atmosphere when we had the real meeting the following day. (reported by Dutch man)




See how apparently 'disrespectful' behaviour can be considered proper by the locals. And how your 'proper' behaviour can seem like an imposition.


2.1. queueing rules


Portuguese feel angry when someone (usually a middle aged person) jumps the queue to ask the clerk behind the counter “Só uma pergunta….” (just a question….) and the clerk stops serving the person in the queue and deals with the queue jumper.


If someone jumps the queue, UK people tend not to address the person in question directly. Rather they'd say to someone standing next to them in a meaningful way but in such a way that the person in question can hear it: Can't they see there is a queue here? or There's always one. If they do address the person in question they might say: The queue starts there.

When at a function at your club, when members are allowed to bring guests, you are queue-barged by a lady while waiting in line at the bar, should you say nothing or...? Provided that you do so quietly and with good nature, it is perfectly acceptable to say: "Excuse me, madam (miss) - this is a queue." We must avoid "Queue-barge Rage" at all costs. This is, presumably, a friendly social occasion. The queue-barger has not stolen that much of an advantage. She showed brash bad manners. But there is a lot of that around, and some of the badly educated see no harm in queue-barging, which used to be regarded as a very un-British sin. It is our duty to try to shame the badly behaved into better behaviour. But without causing uproar or a fracas. Consider it possible that she did not realise that you were queuing? Oh well, probably not. (http://business.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,641-1349751,00.html. November 08, 2004. Modern Manners. Philip Howard answers your questions on contemporary etiquette.)


A few weeks ago I saw three English people in Leuven (Belgium). They went into the bakery and were looking for the ‘queu’. But people weren’t queuing, they stood there in a ‘bunch’ and everyone knew more or less when it was his turn. The English were lost: they kept trying to figure out where the queu was. In the end they left without buying anything.


2.2. Eating / food / pubs/ bars and restaurants


A group of Italian, Hungarian, Polish, German, Spanish and English tourists went to a café in a small Italian town at lunchtime (the so-called “pranzo”). They were all on their way to catch a bus to visit another town. As the Italians were hungry, they ordered bruschette and wine and the Spaniards ordered sandwiches and cappuccino. In contrast, the Hungarians and Poles started eating their home-made sandwiches and ordered cappuccino. The Germans did not even get inside to eat their neatly-wrapped sandwiches. Everybody wanted to hurry the Italians. The Italians answered that other countries destroyed their “eating culture”. The Englishman sat at the table with the others, pulled out a paper and started reading it (which shocked everybody). The Poles and Hungarians were very determined but in the end it was thanks to the Germans only that they managed to catch the bus, as the Germans watched the time.(this incident shows a variety of different cultural attitudes to time and food.)


Golden rule number one. If you wanna get on in Europe, and this is particularly salient for the British race, RENOUNCE THE TEA NOW AND CONVERT TO COFFEE or otherwise face certain ostracisation. In fact, I am surprised even to date that the more intuitive political commentators in this country have not noticed precisely why Tony Blair is not sweating over the prospect of England rejecting the European constitution. All one has to notice is the VAST and unceasing proliferation of coffee houses throughout the nation that has run almost directly concurrent with the Blair administration, and presumably at its behest… this can mean only one thing, he knows he’s already winning the YES vote through infiltrating the very bloodstream of our great nation, like 10 squillion hapless citizens (that’s not an official population figure by the way) not realising that the very life-source of our souls has been slowly transplanted over the last decade, like being plugged into some giant caffeine dialysis machine, that means it is coffee now, and no longer the venerable leaf of tea that runs through our vascular systems… this means our brains are surely addled, we are defacto citizens of a laid back, cosmopolitan, poor time-keeping European mega-state, and dangerously close to having our latent libidos pepped up in the instance of our sperm waking out of a centuries long tea-drowned torpor, having been weakened and watered down by sugary tea!!! The end is nigh my brothers and sisters of Britannia. Blair and his coffee-house franchise proppping up cronies have eaten out our mighty lions hearts from the inside out… it’s only a matter of time before elevenses is supplanted by the evil soporiphory of siestas… it’ll be in the upcoming Labour manifesto I guarantee you!


This may be superfluous, but since it doesn't seem to have come up in any other critical incidents on the list, it may still be worthwhile to point out that coffeshops all over Europe are places where you can get coffee, whereas in Holland they are normally places where you can get dope, weed, shit, hash - whatever you may want to call it (although you may possibly be able to even get a cup of coffee as well). (reported by Dutch man)

A number of contributions mention the role of coffee and/or tea in a cross-cultural perspective. I (Dutch, have lived in UK for the past 10 years or so) would like to add a little bit to that. Certainly fifteen, twenty years ago 'coffee' in the UK almost invariably meant a bit of Nescafe in hot (or lukewarm) water. That has improved (perhaps under the influence of 'Good Coffee' pressure groups and the like, and you can no now get a reasonably decent cup of coffee in most places, so the rift with 'continental' Europe in this respect seems to have narrowed. But now tea. Having a good 'cuppa' (of tea) has been a well-established British tradition going back at least to Victorian times, and one shared across class divides, although (it is claimed) the working classes tend to have theirs in a mug rather than a cup. What is often overlooked, however, is that the British go out of their way to diminish the actual taste of the tea by always putting milk in it (or, more commonly, the other way round - start with the milk and pour some tea over it). When I ask for tea anywhere I always specify 'without milk' (gasps, expressions of horror), which goes to show that tea-with-milk is the unmarked case in the UK, and tea on its own the marked one. Now, from a continental (well, Dutch) perspective, that is unforgivable. How can you appreciate the actual flavour of the tea if you 'drown' it in milk? Especially if you want to taste the characteristic flavours of Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Lapsang or what have you. And to really enjoy it, you need to drink it from a glass. I don't think I've ever enjoyed tea so much as when I drank it hot, on a blazing hot day, from one of those tulip-shaped glasses, sitting in a tea-garden overlooking the Bosphorus - yes, and NO milk, of course! (reported by Dutch man)

And then a particular type of coffee: espresso. Nowadays you can get a reasonable espresso in just about any EU country. But that's usually a rather weak version of the real thing, I imagine. I shall never forget the espresso I had in Pisa, years ago. I was participating in a small conference and after a fairly copious lunch a number of us (including our Italian hosts) went to this little espresso bar. It was so black and strong! Served in tiny cups, about two thimblefuls and with a glass of cold water beside it, of course. Great! So I ordered another. I still remember the look of horror on the faces of my hosts. 'No, don't!', they said in unison, claiming it might be the death of me. Well, I did have another one. I survived. And actually, I think I liked that second one even better! (reported by Dutch man)


A dish which is considered to be a delicacy in one country might evoke feelings of contempt or horror in another. Polish students studying in Belgium decided to treat their Belgian friends with traditional Polish doughnuts. To make a traditional Polish doughnut you need a lot of lard. When they explained in a Belgian shop that they needed lard to make pastry, the assistant raised his brow and started to recommend different types of margarine. When the students clarified that they wanted to make “traditional Polish pastry”, the assistant just said “Oh, I see…” trying to hide an expression of amusement mixed with disgust. (reported by a Polish woman in Belgium) Also Polish “ogorki kiszone” often evoke similar feelings among the people from Western countries for whom these are simply “rotten cucumbers”. (reported by a Polish woman in Romania)


Another trap you can fall into if visiting Poland on any day is stirring your cup of tea or coffee, or any other beverage for that matter. If you want to save face as a well-mannered person, you have to do it in such a way that there is no clinking noise whatsoever. In other words, you must not hit whatever your drink is in with your spoon. It is a feat difficult to achieve unless you have been “trained in stirring” from early childhood like all Polish children. What makes it more difficult is that most hot drinks are served in delicate glasses which very easily amplify the sound. Still, it is worth trying if you want to avoid Poles politely turning their heads away from you in order to show that they did not hear anything (I often wonder if this is only a Polish phobia, or whether they do the same in other countries as well, I will appreciate it if you let me know).


In a restaurant in Northern Greece the man of the party ąnd the boys are given a menu, but the women are not. (reported by a Flemish Belgian)


I notice that in Scandinavian countries –I only know Sweden and Finland- people who go out try to get drunk as quickly as possible. I don’ really see the point. Once, I had the following ‘weird’ conversation in Finland. Finnish guy asks me (Belgian) if I want a glass of wodka (or some other spirit). I answer him: “No. I can’t stand alcohol really. I get drunk so easily.” His reply: “Wow, that’s great. You get drunk without having to spend so much money.”


I don't understand how little you Crazy continentals drink. (reported by an English man)


Stereotypes as to men and women seem to differ in various countries. When I (man) am in a restaurant with my female partner, I usually order a beer and an orange juice. Being interested in how waiters act, I make sure not to show what is for whom, observing with interest when they are ready to put the stuff on the table whether they first ask who the orange juice and the beer is for, or whether they simply assume that the beer is for the man. So far I have not been able to find out whether practice is different in different countries. Whether a waiter does or does not ask seems to be a matter of personality rather than of nationality. (reported by Dutch man)


I was recently in a rather crowded pub with a shortage of seats. There were around 12 of us in our party, but only 11 seats. The man sitting on the table next to ours had a spare chair which he had draped his coat over. He said it was "saved" for his companion. After a while, however, it was obvious his "companion" had not yet arrived (I suspect he may well have been "stood up"), but he still hogged the spare seat while I had to stand awkwardly around our table. Is it etiquette to "save" seats in public bars before your friend has actually arrived? It rather reminds me of tourists who "save" sunloungers around swimming pools by the laying down of towels at dawn. David Harding, Wantage
The man at the next table seems to have been selfish and had bad manners. Pub etiquette is bizarre. Where other than in England would it be considered acceptable for those who have got to the bar first to hog all the space with their bodies and elbows, and not let latecomers near to order a drink? There should be strip of the bar painted red where such possessiveness is barred.
In your case, I do not see what more you could have done. If you had a confident and calm headmistress in the party, she could have removed your neighbour's coat and hung it on a peg, and said, firmly: "Do you mind if we borrow your chair for a bit? when your friend arrives, of course you can have it back." But I wouldn't bother. The last thing that one wants to provoke in a pub is Chair Rage. I would have sat on the floor, or shared a chair with somebody with a small bum.
(http://business.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,641-1327922,00.html. October 25, 2004. Modern Manners. Philip Howard answers your questions on contemporary etiquette)


In France I found it quite difficult to eat all the meals with white bread, and quite unacceptable to clean my plate with a piece of bread after finishing my food. (reported by a Polish woman) (cleaning the plate with a piece of food in Poland is considered "bad manners" - BJ)


We (bunch of people from various EU countries) were in a restaurant in Hungary. We had ordered and were waiting, sipping our drinks, for our respective dinners to arrive. And we waited some more, and drank some more, and waited and waited… After a while some ladies from Greece that we were sitting next to started to get pretty edgy and fidgety. 'In Greece, if we'd had to wait that long, we would just walk out', one of them said. In the end the food arrived after nigh-on an hour and a half (and it was pretty good)… I am told this kind of long wait is not typical of Hungarian restaurants in general, but the Greek attitude to it is probably authentic. (reported by Dutch man)


Irish people would not say anything if something in a restaurant was not in order; their comment would typically be "Oh well, what can you do?" (reported by German woman)


We were in a restaurant in Porto together with my Portuguese colleague Migule Viera. Everybody was enjoying their meal and we were talking. I didn't notice that the other people at the table had finished their first course, and kept slowly enjoying mine. They waited and waited. Then, when I had finally finished, everybody breathed a sigh in relief and the second course was served. At that time I didn't understand what I had done wrong, but 4 months later, when Miguel came to Bulgaria, we took him to a restaurant. When he finished his salad a waiter came and took the empty plate away. Miguel said, "In until everybody had finished it. All the people at the table must wait for the last one to finish eating it and only then they can get their second course. At that moment I understood why everybody present at that first dinner was so tense.


My Headmistress and I had had lunch with our Portuguese hosts and were rather “full”. However we had another dinner planned in our schedule. When we sat around the table in the restaurant we were asked what we would like to drink. We looked at each other and said simultaneously "Water". After a short while the waiter brought water to everybody. The thought that they were all drinking water because of us did cross my mind, but then I looked around the table and analyzed -Mario, the Portuguese colleague, was a driver, his wife was pregnant, and the other two Portuguese ladies ...maybe just wanted water too!? After about an hour my Headmistress asked me to translate a request she had. She kindly asked if she could light a cigarette and if she could have a beer. Suddenly everybody at the table was very happy. Everybody asked for a beer except for Mario's wife. That's how we found out that the guest at a Portuguese dinner table selects the drink and everybody drinks what the guest has ordered.


Cypriots invited to have lunch at Danish friends' house (they were living in Cyprus at the time):
We are sitting at the table and there is a wonderful spread of all kinds of 'open face' sandwiches (salmon, different cheeses etc). Our friends tell us to begin eating. My husband picks up a tiny sandwich and prepares to swallow it in one gulp! You should have seen the face of our Danish host. "No! No! You can't eat it like that. You must use a knife and fork." They obviously haven't seen the way we eat souvlaki in Cyprus! (reported by British-born Greek Cypriot)


A German woman was invited to a birthday party in Denmark. At the party lot of cakes were served as it is normal in Denmark. The German woman thought that the sandwich cake looked very good so she took a big piece. She didn’t understand why all of a sudden it was silent in the room and why everybody else at the party looked at her in a strange way until one of her real friends after some time told her that she had not respected the order of choosing the cakes. You are meant to start with the buns, then the cake in the shape of a pretzel, and ending with the sandwich cake as a sort of dessert at the coffee table. The German woman didn’t realize that it would be very impolite in Danish culture to correct her. (reported by Danish man)


A Finnish man who spent the summer of 1998 working in a hotel and in a factory in Southern Holland lived in a Dutch family: "At the beginning I seemed to do everything wrong: when I was eating with a fork, the others were using a spoon. But when I felt it was time to use a spoon, the others grasped their forks. Finally I adjusted myself to this new "cutlery culture", but I still couldn't quite understand why we ate macaroni with a spoon and birthday cake with a fork.


A Swedish colleague told me of one of her first alcoholic meetings with French culture when she was invited to a private home at 8 p.m. She thought that the invitation included dinner because she had got the impression that French people normally had dinner at 8-10 p.m. At that time she was student and did not have very much money so she decided not to eat anything before going out. As she got into her friend’s house she got a drink and thought that this was a nice aperitif. However, the drinks were not followed by food but by more drinks so at the end she had a feeling of dizziness and hunger. (Swedish woman in France)


I (Dutch, have lived in UK for the past 10 years or so) am still occasionally baffled by what names the English use for their meals and at what time of day. Mostly the evening meal is referred to as 'dinner', but sometime people (often of a somewhat older generation) call it 'supper', and if it's a bit earlier, and light, it's 'tea'… (as you may know, the British are the only people who can 'eat tea'!). And on Sundays the naming rules appear to be different again, and a (lateish) lunch may then also be referred to as 'dinner', it seems. Who can give a satisfactory account?? (reported by Dutch man) (it is explained to some extent in Kate Foxe's book - BJ)

On the firs week he went to have dinner with his new colleagues. In the restaurant they met some new people; they had never seen each other before. They were speaking about the food that a Greek man ordered. The Greek suddenly leant over the table and put a bit of special food directly into my father’s mouth. (My father-in-law (Hungarian) went to Greece to work for ten years. He had some interesting experience).


It is usual in a Greek restaurant that the owner takes you into the kitchen to show you the food you would get. In Hungary it is strictly prohibited because of the law. You have to wear white cape gloves and a hat. Once a Greek man came to Hungary to visit us and we took him into a Hungarian restaurant. He wanted to eat some special food but he couldn’t describe it properly. Suddenly he stood up and ran into the kitchen to show how to make it. Certainly the cooks screamed. (My father-in-law (Hungarian) went to Greece to work for ten years. He had some interesting experience).


When Hungarians use toothpicks in public they always hide their mouth but English people never do it. Hungarians think that hiding is a discrete thing. This English guy wondered because he thinks that hiding is more conspicuous. (My wife’s friend who is an Englishman married a Hungarian girl. They live in a small town in Hungary. He had some very interesting adventures).


My English friend and his wife were building a house. House builders worked all day and this guy wanted to favor the workers with a cup of tea. It is usual in Britain but absolutely unusual in Hungary. Workers drink only beer. (My wife’s friend who is an Englishman married a Hungarian girl. They live in a small town in Hungary. He had some very interesting adventures).


2.3. Toilets


Foreigners in Belgium are often surprised they have to pay for the toilet in cafes, restaurants and pubs, even if they have a drink there or eat something. As a Belgian I also find this an awful habit, but I can’t help it. (in Poland many people believe that paying for the toilet was something characteristic exclusively of communism; if a Pole has to pay for a toilet in Poland he/she will usually make a comment about "those silly habits having their roots in communism" as well as something about  the "need to catch up with the West, where you don't pay for the toilet"; this is obviously absurd as in many west European countries you also have to pay for toilets in many places - BJ)


In some countries the icons used for male and female toilets are very different, notably in Japan, but also in Europe. In some countries the distinction isn’t made. (reported by a Flemish Belgian)


In some Balcan countries (Bulgaria, Greece) you are expected to throw used toilet paper to a dustbin rather than to the toilet. The apparent reason is that the diameter of pipes there is smaller than in other countries and paper might clog the piping.


2.4. Money / tips / paying / sharing cost / showing wealth


I (Dutch man) had a nice chat in English, in a hotel bar, with two German professors who had attended the same meeting I had. I offered them a drink and they both wanted whisky. I myself had beer. When the drinks were finished, I waited for one of the two (whose salaries were quite a bit higher than mine) to offer to buy the second round. No joy. Then I said: “Can I get you another drink?” and both said “Yes, thank you”, istead of saying something like: “Yes, but let me order this round”. After that round was finished, too, there was no invitation or offer from either of the two, so I broke off the conversation even though it was quite interesting and went up to my hotel room, thinking: “Germans are mean”. Correction: “German professors are mean”. Or even more politically correct: “There are at least two German professors who are happy to sponge off a Dutchman.” Of course I won’t ever buy a drink for a German again, unless he has bought one for me first. (reported by Dutch man)


In Germany giving or not giving a tip is up to the customer, unlike in the US where it is obligatory. Do people use different phrases in different countries? Here what is done in Germany: Wollen Sie bar zahlen, und haben Sie den Rechnungsbetrag plus des von Ihnen spendierten Trinkgelds passend? Dann ist es kein Fauxpas, die Summe mit einem "Vielen Dank, es stimmt so" oder "Danke sehr, der Rest ist für Sie" zu übergeben.
Ebenso höflich ist es, wenn Sie die Endsumme nicht passend haben, den Betrag zu nennen, den Sie zurückhaben möchten: "Bitte geben Sie mir 10 Euro zurück", oder zu sagen: "Runden Sie bitte auf 60 auf." Dabei sind grundsätzlich die Stellen nach dem Hunderter (falls vorhanden) gemeint, also beispielsweise 160. Diese Versionen sind somit auch praktikabel, wenn Sie Gäste dabei haben, denen die konkrete Rechnungssumme nicht bekannt werden soll. Die von Restaurantfachkräften ebenfalls als höflich eingestufte Form, den Gesamtbetrag "260" zu nennen, eignet sich in solchen Fällen weniger.<http///www.vnr.de/vnr/selbstorganisationerfolgsstrategien/stiletikette/expertenrat_01033.html>


English men on dates often let me pay for coffee or drinks! Reported by Greek Cypriot


I once overheard an English girl stressing about having to urgently post a letter. She did not have a stamp with her and was in danger of missing the last post so I took a stamp out of my wallet and gave it to her. The stamp was worth 26 pence if not less. She insisted on paying me for the stamp but it was impossible for me to accept money for a stamp –it would feel cheap and petty. I think we both felt slightly offended by the end of the conversation. Reported by Greek Cypriot


While I was in the UK for my studies I (Greek Cypriot) was always struck by the fact that English men argue about whose turn is NOT to pay a round of drinks. To Greeks (mainland and Cypriot) this is completely unacceptable. In fact they do the exact opposite. Reported by Greek Cypriot


Any form of ostentation in Switzerland is frowned upon. And being ostentatious according to the Swiss also involves having someone to clean your windows or your car. If you are able to do something by yourself you should do it yourself instead of spending money on having someone do it for you. Thus, in Switzerland even the millionaires are rumoured to do their own shopping. In Poland extreme ostentation is also generally held in contempt but things such as having someone clean your windows are not regarded as ostentation. Moreover in Poland there are quite a lot of people who consider ostentation as a positive display of your ‘social status’. All in all there seems to be a difference between the stereotypical Polish and Swiss perception of ostentation. (reported by a Polish man in Switzeland)


I was surprised to learn that when it's someone's birthday in Britain friends buy him drinks. In Cyprus the birthday boy/girl buys drinks for his/her friends who have come to celebrate with him/her. Reported by Greek Cypriot


A Dutch boy invited a German friend and me to his flat for a home cooked dinner. I was quite surprised when we were asked to pay a third of the cost of the meal –this would be unthinkable to a Cypriot. After all we were invited as his guests. I think my German friend treated it as perfectly normal. Reported by Greek Cypriot


I (Armenian Cypriot) was surprised to find out that it is common amongst my English friends to pay rent to their parents. This is unheard of in Cyprus.


I once went on a trip to Wales with two of my British uni friends. One of them offered to drive, and when we arrived, she told us that she expected us to pay 1/3 of the petrol cost. In Cyprus however, even if you offer to pay a friend for petrol, they would refuse to accept the money. Reported by a British born Greek Cypriot; (now resident in Cyprus)


As a child, I regularly bought sweets from the convenience store next door to my house in the UK, which belonged to an Indian family. I once bought 30 pence worth of sweets but I only had 29 p on me. The son, born and raised in the UK, told me: "It's OK, you can bring the penny tomorrow!" I was so offended, because I was a regular customer! A Cypriot shopkeeper however, would never dream of asking a customer for one penny! Reported by a British born Greek Cypriot; (now resident in Cyprus)


He went to a restaurant with his friends and he paid. The bill was around 2.000 HUF and he gave 10.000 to the waitress and said: “Thank you”. His friends said: “8.000 for tip is too much!” The Englishman didn’t understand why they were saying it. He didn’t know that telling the waitress “thank you” means “keep the rest!” in Hungary (My wife’s friend who is an Englishman married a Hungarian girl. They live in a small town in Hungary. He had some very interesting adventures).


At the beginning he invited his friends for a lunch. “Invitation” means in Hungary that the person who is inviting pays the bill. The guests were surprised that they should pay their part. It was a special experience for me also when our Austrian business partner invited us to have a lunch and we had to pay the bill. (My wife’s friend who is an Englishman married a Hungarian girl. They live in a small town in Hungary. He had some very interesting adventures).



2.5. Shops / services / customer service



During my holidays in Spain I stopped by a wine store where the owner was unbelievably friendly for his customers, he talked to them, joked with them, and let them taste any kind of wine they wished. What a wonderful way of doing bussiness and socializing at the same time! I’ve never had this kind of experience in Poland. (reported by a Polish woman)


In Denmark, when the customer in front of you doesn’t move fast enough, you just bump into them from the rear (reported by a Flemish Belgian) (????!!)


A Dutch couple living in Gran Canaria told me the following: thye once bought a nice wooden table from a catalogue in a furniture shop in the capital of Gran Canaria. They were promisedthat the table would be delivered at the end of the week. At the end of the week they called the shop keeper but of course the table hadn’t been delivered. The shopkeeper promised it would be the next week, but it wasn’t. So, it went on for 5 weeks: they called the shop and were told the table hadn’t been delivered. They then decided to give up: they wouldn’t phone the shop any more. After two weeks the shop keeper phoned them that the table had arrived. They drove to the capital only to find out the table hadn’t arrived. They complained about this to the shopkeeper who didn’t really understand. He said: “But I have made you happy for a couple of hours, haven’t I?”


One of my German students told me (Belgian) that it struck him that Belgian shopkeepers didn’t say anything when he entered the shop. That’s right indeed. Belgian shopkeepers tend to nod and sometimes they manage a quiet ‘dag’ when someone enters the shop, but very often they don’t say anything and wait until spoken to.


The people who work in Ukrainian hotels (the less expensive hotels at least) often give you the impression of trying not to notice the guests. Even if the hotel guest is standing next to the counter, the hotel employees will be chatting to one another or putting on their make-up, knitting or just looking in the other direction. The customer may stand next to the counter for ages hoping to become noticed by the service. (reported by a Polish man in Ukraine)


In Holland it is customary to say 'Daag', 'Doeii', 'Tot ziens', ('Bye', 'See you', 'Cheers') when you've finished your purchase and are about to leave. The shopkeeper will answer in kind. In England you can say 'Goodbye' etc., but more often than not you won't get a reply.


My second example is set here in Amsterdam. Predictably I was a regular patron of the Kalverstraat outpost of Marks & Spencers before they shut it down. The cramped food section was always an interesting mix of Dutch shoppers, ex pats and British tourists. On several occasions I saw Brits getting all hot under the collar and exchanging a few well chosen words with the natives. It took me a while to figure out what was happening but in the end I put it down to the different attitudes regarding personal space. The Dutch shoppers were exhibiting what for them was standard supermarket behaviour, which involved bumping up against people without a verbal acknowledgement or apology and leaning in front of fellow shoppers to take something from a shelf without an excuse me. Since this was a cultural difference I had a lot of difficulty adjusting to myself when I arrived in Amsterdam, it was somehow reassuring to see the visible exasperation and irritation this prompted in some of the more assertive British shoppers, with one young man even threatening a well-to-do Dutch lady shopper at one point. On the surface it seemed like he was indulging in a bit of gratuitous yobbery, whereas he felt he had been provoked by what he regarded as unbelievably rude and aggressive behaviour on her part. (reported by a British woman, who had married a Dutchman and moved to Amsterdam)


Regarding Spanish retail salespeople, they are way too pushy in offering help to their customers. Portuguese expect to be left alone while doing their shopping. (Interestingly, this is a reverse complaint made by foreigners living in Portgual: “no one in the store offers help”—T.G.).


2.6. Transportation / moving around / directions


talking while travelling

Something a Spanish guy told me. He lived in Belgium but often had to go to Amsterdam for his job. He said: When the doors open in Roosendaal (Dutch border) and Dutch people get on the train the amount of decibels doubles. Afterwards I paid attention to this and I must say it is right: Dutch people tend to speak louder than Belgians. (my experience as a Pole is that all foreigners usually speak louder than Poles in public places - maybe this is so because when you hear a foreign language you notice or register it more than your native language, you are trying to "tune in" to what the foreigners are saying and hence this impression of foreigners speaking louder - Bartosz)


Despite the Germans not being very talkative, a Pole admitted that they still talked to strangers on buses, trains, trams, etc. This custom has died out almost completely in Poland.


I remember a UK manager working in Bulgaria sharing his experience of travelling on the bus in BG. Something like how some people on the bus were shouting and he thought they were fighting. However, later when he picked up some Bulgarian, he realised that people were just sharing their experience anout how they had spent the weekend. (reported by UK-born man)


Another North/South difference noted was the openness of Taxis in Portugal, the expected conversation with the driver and the opposite elsewhere: barriers between driver and passenger encountered in the North (I’m not sure where they were talking about here—T.G. Glass barriers between driver and passenger cpmpartment, I’m sure.—C.K.).


Drivers vs. Passers-by

The taxi drivers drove very fast if they saw a person who was crossing the road, whey would hit him, if he didn‘t hurry up. (???? I'm not sure which country this observation concern but there are obvious differences as far as the behaviour of drivers is concerned among various countries; eg in Austria or Swwitzerland or Germany people keep to regualtions and are very kind towards pedestrians; in Poland or Ukraine the car is the king of the road and pedestrains trying to cross the street  are treated as irritating intruders - BJ)


Paying for your ticket

Place: Hoorn (Netherlands). We took the train on our way back from Enkhuizen where we had had dinner. Half of the group quit the train too early, thinking we had arrived in Hoorn. In reality, we had arrived at another train station not far from Hoorn. We were 10 people or so. The leader of the group, who had the tickets, was not with us. The Dutch, Belgian, Greek, English people decided they didn’t have to pay for a new ticket. Almost all of the eastern European people paid for a new ticket. Afterwards I (a Belgian) talked about this with one of the eastern European people and she said she thought it was because in eastern Europe the police or other controlling instances would never believe you if you said someone else had the tickets. She added: “they would always think you are not honest and you would have to prove you are, which is difficult without valid tickets. In western Europe and southern Europe it looks as if it’s the other way round.”


Intimacy on public transport

Portuguese people do not seem to mind or feel embarrassed by young people making out (engaging in heavy petting) on public transportation or in public places.


How to stop a bus

Greek buses do not stop unless people waiting at the bus stop raise their hands.


Giving directions

Last summer I went to Scotland with my boyfriend by car. One evening it was getting late and we still had to reach the B&B in Edinburgh where we had booked a stay for a couple of days. We continued going all around the city, uphill and downhill, but continually ended up in the same place. The local residents were unable to help us: although they knew the area in which the B&B was located, they were unable to explain how to get there except by generic phrases such as "Go a wee bit this way and then that, and you're there, you can't miss it" or "No problem, just keep going until you get to where young McPherson had his accident, then go left, then right and you're there." With directions like that, you had to be a native of the place to understand where to go.
Finally we found the B&B (by sheer chance) and the first thing I did was to apologize to the owner for being late. I explained to him that it had been difficult, indeed almost impossible, for us to find his house in the dark, with all the roads that look alike and wind around and branch out and hardly any clear signs. "What d'you mean," the owner retorted with indignation, "It's perfectly easy to get here." "Oh yeah," we responded, unbelieving, "well then tell us how." "It's simple," the man said, "you just go a wee bit this way and then that and you're here, you can't miss it! So where's the problem?"
The problem, evidently, was in the inability of the traffic engineers and the people of that area to understand the transportation difficulties of anyone not born and raised in Edinburgh. (reported by Italian male student)


Claiming your seat in trains

In Switzerland (at least in the Basel area) when traveling on a commuter train you are expected to ask a person who is already sitting whether a seat is available even if there are lots of other available seats. In Poland you ask whether a seat is available when there is only one or very few seats available. If there are lots of seats available, you are not expected to ask such questions. (reported by a Polish man in Switzerland)



Others noted the differences between the observance of parking restrictions between Northern and Southern countries in general, feeling that Portuguese will park anywhere they want/can while in Northern countries people respect parking regulations.


2.7. Out in the street



Three students had spent time living in Germany and Switzerland and noticed the great difference between those populations and the Portuguese population in terms of littering. For these students, the Portuguese have no problem with throwing down trash in the street (things like candy wrappers, cigarette boxes, tissues, etc.).

Smoking / asking for cigarettes

Smoking/no-smoking areas in public places. (as far as I understand, Portuguese students believe there are stricter controls in Northern countries as opposed to laxer regulations in Southern countries - this might be changing with Italy introducing the total ban on smoking in public places while in France, Germany or Austria it is still acceptable to smoke in many public places; personally I was amazed to find out that you can smoke in the corridors inside university buildings in Berelin - BJ)


What shocked me in France is that people ask you very easiliy for a cigaret. Even people you pass in the street address you with: Je peux vous preter un clope?. It struck me as very rude but now I'm used to it (and sometimes even do so myself..). (reported by Dutch woman)


Trying to be helpful to foreigners

Something that happened to me when I was 18 years old and about to start my studies at University. One summer evening, about 8 p.m., I was walking home and I walked past a group of foreigners, obviously British. One of them, a man, had walked ahead of the group and was trying to figure out which street they were in. Because of the Cyrillic signs, he was obviously having difficulty deciphering the signs. As I approached him with a very friendly smile, I said: "Can I help you, Sir?" His reaction was shocking: He said "No, no, thank you!", with a very strong note of panic in his voice and virtually ran away, re-joining his friends. I was very upset about the incident and told my father about it. He had lived in England for a couple of years and he was able to provide some explanation: Because I addresses a stranger in the street as "Sir", he thought I was a hooker! (reported by a French woman in France)



When he wakes up he gets a bathrobe over his pajamas and goes to the street for a newspaper. It is absolutely unacceptable for Hungarians because they always get clothes when they go outside. (My wife’s friend who is an Englishman married a Hungarian girl. They live in a small town in Hungary. He had some very interesting adventures).


2.8. Sharing accommodation / living side by side


Studetns’ hostels / halls of residence / students’ exchanges

One student had spent some time in Helsinki with three Portuguese friends staying in a youth hostel. Her comment was that the Finns were very cold and apparently unfriendly. “We were in the common room playing our guitar and singing and no Finns joined us, they just walked past with no expression.” In Portugal, or with Portuguese, she felt the sing-a-long would have been a huge success and they would have all made many friends…not so in Finland.


A German student living in a student hostel in Ireland noted that Irish people rarely complain if neighbours are too loud.


A Norwegian girl student told the Irish people living in the same student hostel that they should clean up things. The Irish people were offended. (reported by German woman, who added: The same sort of thing happened to some German people, who were not quite that direct, but who did not exhibit the normal Irish restraint either) (reported by German woman)


A 30-year-old Pole took part in a Spanish Language Course in Spain where she was staying in a students’ hostel together with other students from France, Portugal and Spain. One evening, at about 10 pm, she felt like playing bingo and asked her friends to go to the bingo hall with her. A group of French volunteered to go with her. She also went to the room of her Spanish female friend, who was watching TV wearing nightclothes. When asked about going playing bingo, she said, “I can’t, I am going out tonight.” (The Pole thought it was a very bad and blatant excuse or lie.)


An Irish student had made dinner for himself. Out of politeness he asked a French girl living in the same student house and her boy friend whether she would like something as well, even though it was obvious that it was meant for one person only. Both French people said yes, assuming that the invitation was meant seriously. The Irish student was left with just one potato and a tiny piece of meat. (reported by German woman)


I was in Germany for an intercultural exchange. The German girl who put me up was quite odd (from my perspective, as an Italian). We slept in the same bed and yet she often had her boyfriend over and considered it was natural for me to sleep with her and with him (both slept naked) in the same double bed. They had no sex, of course (otherwise I would have screamed) but in any case it was an awkward situation for me with my Italian view of sexual intimacy. I mean, I'm used to sleeping with friends. On camping trips in tents, for example, we all sleep together in our gym suits under the same covers. But I am not used to sleeping with a naked couple obviously desirous of each other. Maybe we Italians always see sex and scandals everywhere and so the German girl was just being normal and I was being morbid. Still, even today, I can't quite understand that episode. I'll just have to return to Germany, I guess, and stay with other friends and see how common such an attitude is and what the German attitude towards the body and intimacy really comes down to. (reported by Italian female student)


Youth meeting in Germany. German girl and Danish boy. They fall deeply in love. On the last day they have sex. Afterwards the German girl falls on her back, exhausted, and says: "You are brilliant". He, from his Danish thanking culture, replies: " Tag tusend tag" (Thank you. Thank you a thousand times). (reported by Dutch man)


Camping sites / stopovers etc

A camping site somewhere in Poland; suddenly the weather changed: heavy rain, strong wind, thunders. A Polish tourist was absolutely amazed when a German tourist started to clean the area around his tent.


I was surprised to discover that in Norway there’re places (situated near tourist attractions) where you can spend the night for free as long as you leave them spotlessly clean. (reported by a Polish woman)



A 25-year-old Pole who had started living in Germany noticed that his German friend living next door popped out to the 24-hour shop nearby and what he brought back was just a little packet of ground pepper. After about a month, when they became more friendly, the Pole asked the German about that occurrence. The German explained that “he didn’t want to disturb his neighbour”, which the Pole thought exaggerated, he thought it was normal to ask the neighbour for some ground pepper. (reported by a Pole)



Mathematics is not an opinion.  But 'punctuality', 'hygiene', and 'good manners' are.  Here you will see that what some people consider 'order', other people consider 'obsessive control'.


3.1. Visiting and hosting locals


Being invited

A German lady who had permanently moved to Denmark told me of one of her first encounters with Danish culture. First of all she was astonished how many friends she had got in Denmark because most of the Danes she met were so friendly and open when talking to her. A lot of them even asked her to visit them. After some time in Denmark she understood that this way of talking to people was the normal way but that it did not necessarily mean that you actually paid the nice people you met a visit.


Being entertained

Once took my grandparents to visit a Greek Cypriot friend in the UK who is married to a British woman. We sat in the kitchen for about 45 minutes and the British wife did not offer us anything to drink. Instead she opened a can of corned beef (which my grandparents thought was dog food) and ate it at the kitchen table without uttering a word! My grandparents got so offended they wanted to leave!!! Reported by a British born Greek Cypriot; (now resident in Cyprus)



An Italian woman, when offered a gift by her American friends, repeated several times: “No, no, it’s not necessary. I can’t take it”. Her friends had to insist on her taking the gift before she felt it was okay for her to accept it.


It is tradition in Greece and Cyprus to take a gift when visiting someone's new home. This is not the case in Britain. Reported by Armenian Cypriot (UK resident)


It was very embarrassing situation when I first met a Turkey delegation. They came to observe The National Fair in Plovdiv and my family had to welcome them with a special dinner. We made the dinner with a lot of enthusiasm, but we didn't realize that at that time of the year the Muslims have Ramazan and in that period they must not eat meat! It was embarrassing because all the meals had meat!


When you are invited to a dinner or a party you often bring a present to show your pleasure and to please the host and hostess. When you bring flowers Danes want the flowers to be wrapped nicely and ingeniously to show appreciation. In Germany for example you are meant to unwrap the flowers before handing them over.
There are also different ways to react to presents. In Denmark you are meant to open the present when you get it but in other cultures the present might first be opened when the guests have gone again. (reported by Danish man)


All the foreigners I know appreciate really small things that I give them as presents. I had been in Finland twice. On my first visit there I was surprised that in each house they have a special Finish Sauna! The strange thing was that if you are guest in a Finish family, you are supposed to go the sauna at least one time. The thing that amused me very much was that Finnish people go inside the sauna net! After the sauna they used togo outside in the snow without any clothes, where the temperatures were below 0 Celsius! They are very temperament, aren't they?


Greeks find it a token of respect tot heir hosts if they arrive late, unlike Bulgarians, for example, who start worrying when their guests are late.


Portuguese are rather lax about meeting times. Generally, 10.00 means ‘sometime after 10.00’. (It’s not that they are intentionally late or lazy it’s just that other things have come up needing immediate treatment like stopping to talk to a neighbor or taking a call on the mobile, etc.—T.G.)


About six years ago my secondary school organized a student exchange with a secondary school in Salzburg, Austria. So for two weeks my family and I had, in our home here in Rome, a nice Austrian girl who was thinking of studying Italian and who would be inviting me to her home the following month. I said a "nice" girl -- except for one thing. When she entered the house, she immediately took off her shoes and walked from room to room in her socks as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Now, as anyone knows (well, anyone born and raised in Italy), socks stink. Even if they are washed and perfumed every day, at the end of the next day they stink. It's normal. It's human. If you walk through the house in your socks you simply spread germs and odors around. Common sense will tell you that! Well, common sense here in Italy.My mother did everything she could to explain to our guest these very simple things. But our guest didn't speak Italian yet and these ideas did not seem readily understandable to her. My mother bought her slippers, for which she showed great gratitude by putting them and their gift wrapping in her suitcase to take home. And she continued to wander though the house in her smelly socks. When I went to stay with her family in Salzburg I forgot the slippers incident and entered the home with my shoes on and walked about everywhere, just as I do in Rome. Suddenly I noticed that the family was looking at me in a strange way. For them it was worse to bring into the house, on the soles of my shoes, the dirt and germs I might have picked up outside, than to walk around the house in my socks, spreading my personal dirt and germs around.From this episode I learned that every culture is happy with its own filth and cannot stand the filth of others. (reported by Italian male student)

(You are also expected to take off your shoes in Sweden and Norway. In Poland - it depends: most often than not the vistors / guests are starting to take off their shoes and they are checking the hosts' reaction; if the host does not say anything then the shoes should be taken off; if the hosts says "Oh no please do not take off your shoes!" then you may keep them on - Bartosz' annotation)


A problem with time! Cypriots making arrangements to meet with Greek friends in their home in Athens:
What time would you like us to come round?
Come in the afternoon.
We turn up at 4.00 pm only to find them resting and not at all ready for us. For Greeks the afternoon starts much later, usually after 7.00. Actually we found out that they do everything much later than Cypriots. It is normal for Cypriots to have lunch at 1.00 and dinner at 8.00, but the Greeks don't usually have lunch until 3.00 or 4.00 and dinner after 10.00 pm! (reported by British-born Greek Cypriot)


An educated Englishman of about 30 threw a party in his rented room for a group of his Polish girl-friend’s friends. At about 2 in the morning he went to the bathroom and went out in his nightclothes saying “I’m sorry but I’ve got to go to bed”, which stunned the guests. There was only one bed. They said it was too late to catch anything to get home and they were only students, who couldn’t afford a taxi. However, he insisted that he needed his sleep. They left and wandered about until the morning. (It is extremely rude to ask guests to leave in Poland. Besides, Poles are not supposed to say such

assertive things.)


When to leave

I think a colleague of mine had some interesting experience in an ex Soviet republic where tea glasses were filled to the brim and people left. That was a sign that you want them to leave. (reported by Bulgarian man)


3.2. birthdays / weddings / funerals / other celebrations / family life




In Bulgaria, on your birthday you are expected to organize your party and invite your friends to celebrate with you. Your friends bring you presents (and flowers if you are a female) but you pay for all the drinks and food. In countries like France and England, if you get invited to a birthday party, you are expected to bring a present for the birthday person and pay for your drinks and food. This is quite a shock for Bulgarians. (reported by Bulgarian woman)


Birthdays and other parties seem to be very important for the Dutch. I managed to attend two parties. Both of them pretty funny, I think. The actual parties were quite the same as the parties we have in Finland, but the beginning of the ceremony was simply hilarious: the guests came in and started shaking everyone's hands and congratulated each and every person! Even I got my share of congratulations, though it was my host father who was having his birthday. People abroad often say that the Dutch people aren't funny at all, but such people obviously haven't been to a Dutch birthday party!" < http://www.uta.fi/FAST/AV3F/SPE/sh-dutch.html>


It is tradition here in the UK that even if you don't take a gift to someone celebrating their birthday, you have to give them a birthday card. This is a totally new concept to me as an Armenian Cypriot who may even give gifts without a card!


Name days


There is no “name day” in Britain and in the US but it is a quite important in Hungary and it is extremely important in Greece. Hungarians have small celebration in the workplace and quite big in Greece. Once we called our friend on his “name day” The truth is that we didn’t know that it was a coincidence. He was very happy that we kept in mind his “name day” and he almost cried. Certainly we didn’t mention that it was a coincidence. (Reported by a Hungarian).


Name days are also very popular in Poland; for some Poles your name day seems to be a more important event than your birthday. At work people who celebrate their name day sometimes bring cakes, sweets or even sandwiches and the colleagues are supposed to bring flowers or chocolate and things.





I was once invited for a wedding party in Holland. I took the train to Utrecht but my train was delayed and I was 10 minutes late in Utrecht. The service had already started and I wasn’t allowed into the church any more. Afterwards I thought there would be a big reception but the only thing I got was 1 glass of juice and some potato chips. I had come all the way just to get this. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I had bought a really expensive present as I had expected quite a party but I was really sorry I had brought something.


At wedding parties (including silver and gold ones) in Holland it is customary for someone close to one (or both) of the couple to organise a whole programme of songs and sketches, some to be performed by individuals, others to be joined in by everybody present. To English people this is often a bewildering experience.




In Holland it is normal after the funeral or cremation to shake hands with the next of kin and express your condolences by saying 'gecondoleerd' ('my condolances') or such. At a funeral a while back my son of (then) 18 or so was just before me in the queue and I overheard him expressing his condolences to the son of the deceased (who was about the same age as him) by saying 'Klote, zeg!' (something lik 'Shit, man!'), to which he got the reply 'Ja, klote!'.


When my British Indian friend's father passed away, I wanted to send flowers to the funeral. But apparently, flowers are considered suitable only for celebrations and hence it was inappropriate to send them for this occasion! In Cyprus, you can barely see the coffin, as there are so many flowers around! Reported by Armenian Cypriot (UK resident)


We (Armenian Cypriots) mourn for 40 days when a close one passes away. And then we mark that day by going to church. British Indians have a ceremony after 12 days. Reported by Armenian Cypriot (UK resident)


Attitude towards children / babies


A white middle woman from a mixed American and Hungarian family has had touching experiences in Paris when walking around with her 4-year-old and 3-month-old sons. Even younger and elderly men showed a lot of positive emotions towards the children. When travelling in the metro, there were always people giving up their seats both for her and for elderly women (mostly white, however). (reported by Hungarian woman)


While I was in Munich, I was amazed at how "cold" people can be. I was shopping down Stachus St with my half-German half-Greek Cypriot cousin when we came across this beautiful baby in a pushchair outside a shop. My cousin gently stroked his cheek and said in German "You're so cute" but his mother gave us an evil stare as if to say "Get your dirty hands off my baby". A British or Cypriot mother however, would have been flattered by this friendly gesture! Reported by a British born Greek Cypriot; (now resident in Cyprus)


A Spanish woman married to a German man gave birth to her first baby in Germany. She was disappointed that nobody from her German family members wanted to help her with looking after the baby.



Here you will see how 'being straightforward' can seem disrespectful.  And how 'showing respect' can irritate, because it slows down communication.


4.1. Meetings


I (Dutch man) regularly chair meetings attended by various people from all over Europe. At the end of a meeting I usually summarize what we have done, what tasks we have set ourselves, etc. But I have learned not to do that when there are many French people present, because they tend to say things like: "That is not necessary. We were all present at the meeting. We know what tasks we have!" (reported by Dutch man)


Finnish men (and to some extent women, too) feel comfortable with fairly long pauses during a meeting. Whereas I (Dutchman) tend to respond directly after the previous speaker has finished what he wanted to say, Finnish men are content to allow some time for “reflection”, allowing a pause of 1, 2 or more seconds to develop. It makes me seem unduly dominant, because if nobody says anything for 1 or 2 seconds, I feel an urge to say something, so as not to let an uncomfortable silence develop. Since I was told about this, I take care not to “take the turn” straight away, but instead count the seconds. After I have counted to 3, I feel I can open my mouth. But it is quite frustrating. Also because Finns take their time to compose a response to the (of course: brilliant :-) discourse I’ve just given, which makes me think that they completely disagree, or disapprove of what I’ve said, etc. Most disturbing... (reported by Dutch man)


Dutch person used to work with people from all over Europe. They found the culture of ‘having meetings’ strange in Holland: everyone can say what he thinks at a meeting and does so. That way, meetings can take ages. However, a lot of people had the feeling that this was ‘false democracy’: everyone could give his opinion but in the end it was the boss who decided anyway. They thought the interventions of all these people weren’t necessary or could at least be reduced.


At a Comenius Project meeting were 7 European countries representatives and all speaking either in English, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Finnish or German. After so many speeches in different languages and after trying to establish communication with all the partners in those different languages I ended up talking to my school mate who could only speak English or Portuguese in French! What confusion! (reported by Portuguese woman)


The Dutch seem to have a reputation for bluntness. Some Dutch people tend to say things like That is nonsense or You are being pretty chaotic during international meetings. They themselves seem to regard this bluntness as 'being direct' or even as 'being honest'. (reported by Dutch man)


On mobile phones, one may take a call anywhere anytime, even during departmental meetings. (Portuguese)


Some weeks ago, in late November, we (Portugal) received a delegation of Polish, Slovak and Czech teachers. After all the work was done we went sightseeing with them. Our town is near the coast so after having a huge lunch we went to the beach because some of them had never seen the sea. I almost collapsed when I saw the Czech teachers running out of the bus taking their clothes off running to the sea. The water was freezing cold and they simply dived in with their stomachs full. I was ready to call an ambulance because I was sure they were going to paralyse their digestion! Fortunately nothing happened but I’ll make sure never to take anyone who has never seen the sea after such a big meal! (reported by Portuguese woman) (I decided to include this IC under here as it describes the possible dangers of organizing free time for conference participants from landlocked countries - BJ)


4.2. Working relations


A Pole, who started working for a German firm years ago, reported that his colleagues at work would very rarely say anything remotely personal, or utter any statements longer than necessary. However, when after a few months they started frequenting pubs together the same Germans turned out to be sociable and friendly. Still, the way they communicated at work never changed and the Pole admitted, “But I’ve never met a German who would talk for a long time, anyway”.


A similar observation was reported by the wife of a prominent lawyer working for a German firm in Poland. The difference is that she described the communication between the Poles and Germans working for the firm as formal regardless of the situation where it occurred. For instance, despite them having met professionally and socially many times over the years, they still referred to her husband using his title and surname.


Another student works in a Portuguese company which has many Spanish employees in the Lisbon office. The Spanish, she said, always use the “tu” (informal ‘you’) form instead of “voce” or “Senhor Director” (formal) when speaking to the Portuguese boss and she can see that it bothers him. (They probably do it on purpose!—see comments in the Dutch section below—T.G.).


He mentioned that the working habits are extremely different from the Hungarian. We usually start to work 8-9 in the morning, work until 12:30, take 30 minutes lunch and continue working until 5-6 PM. In our workplace we communicate like in a pub with gestures and in friendly way. People often go to a pub after work and the colleagues are often friends each other. People hardly know each other in Sweden sometimes they introduce themselves however they work close to each other for many years. There is a rule in some companies that orders people to have at least half an hour a week when they must make friends with colleagues. During this time they are sitting in silence and looking the wall or each other. People in Germany don’t like gesturing they are frightening if you use your hands during your communication but only in workplace and it is not problem in a pub. People in Italy arrive to the workplace not earlier than 10AM. When they arrive immediately go out for a coffee. During the work they use very big gestures they like running along the rooms shouting almost knocking over the chairs and desks. They usually have three-hour-long lunch and around 4PM they have again a longer coffee break. Coffee break is almost a religious adventure for them. They finish the work around 10PM. (My colleague (Hungarian) worked for few years in Germany, Sweden and Italy).


4.3. Public offices


Foreigners from Germany, Holland and the Scandinavian countries have often told me (a Belgian) that they have problems with the way Belgian administration people work. If there is a problem and you are right, you may never be firm (e.g. don’t say: “it’s your problem, you have to solve it and I keep standing here until the problem is solved.” ) In other words: don’t be aggressive or even ‘clear’ in the way you talk because that is not appreciated. Instead, you just keep standing there, sigh a bit, say “ooohhh, that’s bad”, sigh again, wait, …. There is a good chance that in that case they do feel responsible for solving the problem for you: then they have the feeling they take the initiative and they can ‘arrange’ something for you (=> ‘arranging things’ is very popular in Belgium). It is something I have to learn myself; in that sense I’m not a typical Belgian. (also in Poland there is this "custom" or "need" to "arrange things" when dealing with public administration, national health service etc. - Bartosz)


4.4. Other


Austrians say goodbye to business partners with such phrases as "Auf Wiedersehen" (good bye). German partners often say goodbye with the phrase "Tschüss". This sounds quite childish in Austrian ears, as in Austria it is only used for and by children.



In a separate html file called Expectations_foreigners_HU.htm you find a list of what "westerners" expect of Hungarians in business dealings.





education / / being a student / teacher-student relations


5.1. Being a teacher


I (Pole) used to work at a school with a number of Englishmen. One of the Polish teachers was a single, divorced mother with a very sickly son. The woman herself had lots of health problems, some of which might have been seen as imaginary. At the time she was sharing a group with a young Englishman, so they were teaching at alternate hours. On that occasion she arrived at school a long time before her lesson and the Englishman was doing something at the computer. She said, “Mark, do you think you could possibly cover the lesson for me today; I’ve got an appointment to see a doctor?” Mark just turned to her and said, “Sorry, I can’t.” The Poles were stuck for words, there was complete silence. (Generally, Poles are not supposed to give such assertive answers, but the real crunch here was that a mother of a child is a religious icon who should be treated with due respect and every concession should be made to help such a person. An acceptable refusal here would have been “I’m so sorry, I certainly would do that if I could, but I have an operation on my appendicitis today/my dying mother wants to see me, etc J. But I’m sure Tom will do that. Tom could you cover for Barbara today?”)


5.2. Being a student


Very often, foreign students are surprised that they cannot register for language courses in Belgium if they don’t have all the necessary papers (student card, school certificates, …) with them. They expect they can bring them later or ‘arrange’ something with the secretary.



Many foreign students find it strange that teachers and professors can be called by their first name in Holland and Belgium. They think it is impolite and are sometimes confused.


5.3. Teacher – student relations


As a teacher of Dutch as a foreign language I sometimes realize that I don’t manage to make it clear to people why they didn’t pass their exam. Very often, the not-passing has to do with not being adapted to the culture or studying in a way that is not efficient. Then I try to explain this but it often happens that students react to this: “Yes, I have to study harder.” But that is not the problem. No matter how I try, students keep saying “I will study more.” Usually, I must admit, these are Asian students who have been studying in a way that is really completely different from our own.


I was surprised to discover that the same Danish students used first names when addressing their teachers. (reported by the same Polish student)


5.4. Other


Students reported being annoyed when a colleague’s phone goes off during class but that they ‘understood’. (Portuguese)




Here you will see how words mean only what people think they mean.  So learning to speak to people is primarily learning to understand how they see and say things.


6.1. Using the local language / using international languages


A Polish girl, speaking good, communicative French after studying it for years, was working in France. She reported that the French would criticize her French rather than encourage her. They’d say things like “Your French is awful”, “I’d rather you didn’t try to speak French”, “You are making so many mistakes.” She also added that the French could very rarely speak any foreign languages themselves. On one occasion she got upset by the French laughing at her during a conversation, they said “Oh, she doesn’t understand anything!” though she understood most of it and she certainly got that comment right! By contrast, when she travelled to Britain, she noticed that no matter how little she understood or how poorly she communicated, everybody was enthusiastic about her English and people would say things such as “You said you didn’t speak English, but you do!”


When I was to France, my class and I slept in a small hotel, which was kept by a family. It was very strange that they did not talk to us in English, so we understand each other only by gestures and international words. But in the night, it happened that we gathered all classmates in one room and made loud voices. As a result, one of the Frenchmen came in the room and started to shout at us in fluent English.


My critical incident in France is a common one, that many tourists report who, like me, do not know French. Whenever I stopped a person in the street to ask for directions or the time or just about anything, using English as a lingua franca, my interlocutor would listen carefully, nod to show he understood perfectly, and then respond in... French. I would politely inform my interlocutor, in English, that I didn't know a word of French. And just as politely he or she would express regret... in French. Isn't intercultural communication supposed to be joint effort? (reported by Italian female student)


As a group of hormonal late-teens English lads holidaying in Magaluf, Majorca one night we decided we’d attempt to tap the well of seedy knowledge within the Balleric taxi driving ranks. Five of us struggled into the back of a cab and tried to describe our desire to be taken to a topless bar, or some such venue of relatively harmless fun. The taxi driver, not having the best handle on the English language, and us having none whatsoever on Spanish struggled somewhat to understand the finer implications of our request. This, despite our enthusiastic, and very artistic attempts to mime the image of topless bar staff, lots of arcing breasts being mimed upon our chests and such like.
The taxi driver suddenly exclaimed “AH! You want fuki fuki?!”. Exasperated by the limitations of body language-charades by this point we decided he might have started to get what we were getting at, but a half hour’s drive into the seedy back streets later, and with the man proceeding to a darkened door, of a flat in a dingy-darkened alleyway to give a ‘secret-knock’ made us realise that we’d gotten in a little deeper than we’d expected.
When the taxi driver returned to find us fleeing from the cab in fear of god-knows-what (probably precisely what a group of 18 year old English lads go to Majorica for…namely sex), realising we were not to be delivered to a nice, no fuss, no contact topless bar (presumably populated by women with breasts at least 1 tenth the size of the mammoth mammary monstrosities we had mimed within the confines of the taxi)… he exclaimed “WHAT! You no want fuki fuki?!” to which we all replied “NO!” and scrammed.
So, the moral of this tale is, don’t attempt to plug gaps in your linguistic skills with mimes, and always know that as an Englishman in Europe your concept of ‘fuki fuki’ is always going to be far more conservative, and less interesting than anybody else’s. (reported by British man)


Many foreigners in Belgium complain about the fact that Belgians / Dutch immediately switch to French or English when a foreigner tries to say something in Dutch. This is really confusing for the foreigner who may then think that his Dutch isn’t good enough to be understood. This is totally different in France, Germany or England.


Both American  and English speakers are frustrated by not being able to find any English speaking people in Paris, even in the central information. At the same time, people are friendly and try to explain the way in sign language plus French. (reported by Hungarian woman)


Many visitors in Holland say that it is extremely difficult to practise Dutch with people they meet, from friends to supermarket employees, because the moment a Dutch person hears them talk with a foreign accent, they automatically change over to mostly English, sometimes to German. (reported by Hungarian woman)


On several occasions a Pole working in Disneyland, Paris, was approached by Italians who asked her something in Italian. As she did not speak Italian, she would normally have said something in French, or English. This did not cut ice with the Italians at all, it only made them shout more and louder in Italian and wave their hands even livelier.


6.2. Gestures / body language / distance


Portuguese do not mind ‘physical’ conversations; i.e., gentle touching of the interlocutor’s arm while making a point is normal. ((My Portuguese neighborholds on to my elbow the whole time we exchange pleasantries—it feels creepy to me .—T.G.)


Another thing striking Anglo-Saxons in Bulgaria is distance - they get really embarrassed when standing in a queue in front of an ATM or phone booths. (reported by UK-born man)


Some people in Britain objected to or misinterpreted my tendency to touch people when I’m talking to them.  Reported by Greek Cypriot


In Bulgaria people nod their heads when they mean/say no and shake their heads when they mean yes. As an English woman teacher who taught in Bugaria reported:I'll have coffee, I tell the waitress at a cafe during my first week in Bulgaria. She shakes her head from side to side. OK, tea, I say, thinking that maybe there is something wrong with the coffee machine. Again, she shakes her head. Um ... cola? Once more, she shakes her head. By now, she's looking at me like I'm crazy, and I'm totally confused. Then I remember: A shake of the head by a Bulgarian means yes, and a nod - what the rest of the world does for yes means no.
I knew about this before I arrived in Bulgaria, but it's amazing how something that seems simple and easy enough to remember can lead to so much confusion, and so many funny moments. Early on, when I communicated with Bulgarians, it seemed like my head was moving in ways my brain hadn't told it to. Sometimes I wanted to grab my ears and use them as controls. Learning a language with a completely different alphabet was challenging enough, without trying to figure out whether to nod or shake. When I began teaching, all this head-bobbing made communication in the classroom interesting. Although I had made sure my students knew about this cultural difference on the first day of school, we all frequently forgot what we were doing. My students would answer a question correctly or say something really great, and I'd nod. A second later, they were trying to change their answer, since they thought the nod meant they had been wrong. But the confusion went both ways. Sometimes I'd ask a student a yes-or-no question and he or she would answer with a nod or a shake, without saying anything. Not remembering the difference, we'd have to go through the motions several times before I understood. Frequently I found myself saying: Da or ne. Just tell me one or the other!

I also had to deal with confused colleagues who couldn't figure out why I kept nodding my head while they talked, as if I were arguing with them. In truth, I was just trying to show that I understood and was following along with the story. And then there was the even greater problem of how to act with Bulgarians who spoke English and were aware of the nodding-shaking problem. Was I supposed to nod or shake for yes
when I was speaking English with them? And what was I supposed to do when we were speaking Bulgarian? What if we were in a situation where both languages were being spoken? To make matters even more complicated, after going a couple of weeks without any contact with other Americans, we'd finally get together and I'd find myself shaking when I should have been nodding. My head was spinning! < http://www.peacecorps.gov/wws/cybervol/2004-5/Vernon_Sept_Letter.html>


I went for a haircut in Bulgaria. The lady who gave me the haircut did not speak a single word in any of the languages I knew. Even “yes” and “no” in English was beyond her, which meant that I ran into the perennial problem in that country: Bulgarians shake their heads when they mean “yes” and Nod when they mean “no”. This had hilarious consequences. When she offered to also cut my eyebrows by holding the scissors in front of them and looking at me with a questioning expression in the mirror, I said “Yes, please”, nodding my head, which resulted in her putting the scissors away. Something similar happened when we tried to negotiation the size of my whiskers and whether or not she should cut my nose hair or put perfume in my hair. We both saw the humour of the situation, and finally came to a perfect understanding: if I said “ok” with thumbs up, that meant “yes”, whatever the movement of the head. If I waved my arms in front of me, saying “not ok”, it meant “no”. Because I had enjoyed the whole “communicative” situation so much, I left a large tip, which made the lady grab my hand and press a kiss on it. Curious country, Bulgaria… (reported by Dutch man)


When I was studying in Ireland an Italian classmate raised his hand, with his index finger extended, to signal to the teacher that he had a question to ask. Well, this is what we do in Italy. But every time he did so, the teacher looked annoyed. Finally we asked her why and discovered that my Italian friend's gesture was similar to the Irish way of telling people to go to Hell. (reported by Italian female student)


I am surprised by how much touching all European men do. (reported by an English man)


People from the West often consider Poles to be sad or unfriendly because Poles apparently do not smile as often as people in the West. However the fact that Poles smile less often does not mean they are unfriendly or sad. It simply means that Poles do not use smiling as a ritualistic way of showing strangers ‘good intentions’. For Poles lack of smiling seems to be a sign of a neutral - not negative –attitude. This however is changing nowadays and Poles – especially younger generations – adopt Western standards. (reported by a Polish man in Austria and Germany)


6.3. Linguistic pitfalls / "false friends" / outdated idioms / pronunciation


I have always problems with Greek people when they say ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I always seem to misunderstand, although I’m not sure what is different: is it the nodding of the head that is different? Or is the word for ‘yes’ ‘nee’ or something? Or is it a combination of both? (reported by e Belgian woman)


A Dutch student in France walked in the street with his dog on a leash. Walking towards him is a French lady, also with a dog. She stops 10 meters before him, asking: “Monsieur, est-ce que c'est un chien?” He replies, amazed: “Oui, ce n'est pas un chat”. The dog of the lady in question was a bitch in heat, and she wanted to make sure that it was not a male dog (chien) that came towards her. The Dutch use “hond” (chien) as a generic name; the French use chien for male dogs only. (reported by Dutchman)


Scandinavian languages are alike in the written (and sometimes also in the spoken) language. The word “rolig” or “roligt” looks in Swedish and Danish very much alike, but the word means quite different things and are indeed antonyms. A Danish taxi driver had a Swedish tourist in his car who wanted him to drive to a “roligt” place. The Dane therefore headed for the nearest museum of art and stopped at the entrance. The Swede wasn’t eager to get out, because he thought he had come to a wrong place. Actually the Swede and the Dane totally misunderstood each other, because the Swede with the word “roligt” meant a funny place like a dancing house, a bar, an amusement park etc. “Roligt” means in Swedish “funny” and in Danish “quiet”. (reported by Danish man)

No-one, as far as I can see, has drawn attention to the Dutch' predilection for diminutives, so I'm doing that now (performative statement?). The Dutch language abounds with what are formall diminutives (some of which don't even have a non-diminutive form) for all kinds of common things: kopje, meisje, koopje (cup, girl, bargain), where other languages often don't use a diminutive. Sociologists and others often relate this to the fact that Holland is such a small country, and the claim that the Dutch suffer from some kind of inferiority complex because of this. (reported by Dutch man)


My first experience with Hungarians left me with the impression that they have rather high opinion of themselves. This was based solely on the fact that many of them used what to me appeared to be a royal plural. A Hungarian would say something like "we went with Peter to such and such place", meaning that the speaker and Peter, nobody else, went wherever they went. In other words, the speaker used "we" to describe himself or herself, and I only knew of one another person who does that: the Queen of England. Later I learned that this is a literal translation of Hungarian form which has nothing to do with self-esteem getting out of hand but rather with linguistics. (reported by Croatian)


A French woman noticed a draught when visiting a friend's house in Amsterdam. She said, referring to a room one floor higher: Est-ce que la fenźtre la-haut est ouverte? Her host said that there was no fenźtre up there, just une porte. It turned out that they were both talking about so-called French windows, defined in WordNet as "A pair or one of a pair of windows extending to the floor and opening in the middle." For the Dutch host is was a "door" because you could walk through it. For the French lady it was a "window", because of its transparency. (reported by Dutchman)


Those of us of a slightly older generation, who studied English in the sixties or thereabouts, should beware of using idioms that we may have learnt then, but are now hopelessly outdated. Nobody 'sports their oak' or is 'in a brown study' any more, these days. You don't ask 'Where can I wash my hands', 'Can I use your bathroom' anymore when you want to go to the toilet in someone else's house (but don't say 'Can I go to the loo/bog' either, when it's a fairly formal do). You just say 'Can I use your toilet?' And at a party in the UK with firework being set off in the garden (a few months ago - Guy Fawkes' day or Divali - they're often around the same time), as it was freezing cold, I (Dutch) entertained some youngsters standing near me by saying that it was 'cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'. Reports back later on suggest that I have now established a firm reputation among them of being a dirty old man…
(For the etymology of the monkey expression, see http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-bra1.htm)


A Dutch minister is reported to have once said to the German lady he was sitting next to at a banquet: "Es freut mich, Sie zu mieten" (It's nice renting you, instead of it's nice meeting you). To meet sounds like German mieten, which means to rent). According to the story the lady responded: "Kaufen geht auch...". (Buying is also an option ).

A Dutch prime minist r apparently once told an audience of businessmen: "Holland is a country of undertakers", meaning entrepeneurs. The Dutch verb ondernemen is usually transated as to undertake, as in to undertake a journey.

Another Dutch minister, this time the minister of environment (why are all these jokes about Dutch ministers, and not about, say, English ones?) introduced herself when in France as "ministre du milieu", not knowing that milieu in French means underworld.

A Spanish boy learning French in Vietnam met his teacher in a pub after four months of French language lessons and said“ Comment allez vous”. The teacher answered “ allez vous bien”.

An Italian professor, visiting his Polish colleage in Poland, was asked in English if he’d like a cup of tea. He replied “thank you” (which he thought meant “yes, thank you”) and was surprised when he got nothing. In Polish “dzi_kuj_=thank you” usually means “no, thank you”.


A French mother with a baby boy was very upset when a Pole she met asked, “How old is he?” in Polish (the Polish for this is “Ile on ma lat?” which sounds very similar to the statement in French “He is ill” – “Il est malade”). Obviously the Polish friend meant no harm, the misunderstanding arose solely from the coincidentally similar pronunciation.


A Bulgarian lady visiting her husband's place of work (a military base) found out that "I'm hot" means more than one thing in a men-only company.


A Dutch friend of a Pole told him that the Pole’s son was “stubborn”. The Pole felt a little upset and the Dutchman explained that it was a positive trait. (In Polish culture, “stubborn” would be considered negative, especially when a child is described as such.) (Comment from another Dutchman: stubborn is a literal translation of Dutch koppig, which is not usually considered to be a positive characteristic by the Dutch. Both the English and the Dutch words may have the meaning of indomitable (onverzettelijk) which is much more positive).


Last summer I was in Barcellona, spending a week with my friends. It was evening and we were having a glass of sangria in a little "cerveceria" at the port.... I was talking to my friends and, to make sure they understood me, I said, rather loudly...."capisci?" ["Understand?"] Nearby a group of boys started repeating what I said, laughing.... So I asked them why and they answered that, in their dialect, I had said a foul word. But they refused to tell me which. (reported by Italian male student)


In Spain chocolate stands for both chocolate and hash (drug). When among young friends hash is very commonly passed around. One night in such a group, someone sayd‘I would like some chocolate’. The Belgian woman of the company opens up her purse and produces a bar of chocolate, which causes general laughter among the people present. For Belgians it is not at all obvious to deal with drugs openly and without complexes. (reported by a Flemish Belgian)


My father-in-law was making a telephone call to a colleague in the States whom he had never met. My father-in-law knew that the other person's first name was Coen and that the company policy was to address people by their first name. He pronounced the name as the Dutch first name 'Koen' and consequently the other person slammed down the receiver. After calling the person again and asking: '/ku:n/, what's the matter?', Coen slammed down the reciever again. Coen /ko-Źn/ is black and interpreted the Dutch /ku:n/ as the derogatory term 'coon', equivalent to 'nigger'. My father-in-law was not aware of the meaning of the phonemic expression /ku:n/ in English, neither did he know that Coen was black. It took a while for Coen to believe that my father-in-law did not mean to offend him (reported by a Flemish Belgian in the USA)


Hungarians also often tend to pronounce law in the same way as low, and abroad as a brode, which, because there is no such word, leads to a flurry of mental activity among people who know English well. (“I have never been a brode” – “Never been a brode? A brode? What is he talking about?”). Is that really bothersome? To me: yes, very much so. Should I be bothered by these mispronunciations? No, probably not. But I am. (reported by elderly Dutchman

I (Dutchman) sometimes have problems understanding Hungarians even if they speak good English. Sometimes it is because of the use of pronouns. Sometimes I don't know who is being referred to by he or they. Sometimes  it is because of the use of pronouns in a case like: We talked to Mary in the sense of I talked to Mary. Apparently with verbs of communication (talk, write discuss etc.) the subject is plural because two or more people communicate. (reported by Dutchman)


When I (Croatian) visited Czechoslovakia for the first time, back in 1990, I immediately realized that I could understand a whole lot of what is being said. Daily I made what seemed like leaps and bounds of progress, but one thing continuously bewildered me: Czechs would  sometimes say "no" and then nod their heads as if meaning to say yes. Further puzzlement was provided by the fact that I knew that Czech word for no is "ne". A couple of weeks and a lot of unexplained Czech behaviour later I realized that Czech word for yes, which is "ano" is customarily pronounced without the first sound, thus coming out as "'no". What a great place for shortening a word ...


There is/ was a tendency amongst French-speaking  Belgian students to use the expression 'why not?', combined with a  rather sulky looking shrug of the shoulders and pout to mean 'yes  that's a great idea'  - it comes across very badly in English, but is  a direct translation of 'pourquoi pas?' which denotes a positive show  of enthusiasm in French. All the native speaking English teachers  tended to comment on this expression when they first arrived, genuine  mis-communication I think! (reported by English woman)


Dutch / Flemish vocabulary: When Dutch say ‘lopen’ they mean ‘to walk’ whereas in Flanders it means ‘to run’. It once happened to me (years ago) that a group of Dutch people invited me “Zullen we lopen”? I appeared in jogging and sport shoes but they meant ‘walking’.


Dutch / Flemish vocabulary. ‘stappen’: Dutch mean ‘go out’, Flemish mean ‘to walk’.


Once one of my students of German, a Danish boy, returned from Germany telling me about a situation he did not understand. He was visiting a girlfriend in Heidelberg, and one evening the girlfriend wanted to get out having some fun. Therefore she suggested to him to go to the discothŹque in the evening. My student wanted to be polite so he asked her: Muss ich mitkommen? He actually meant: Darf ich mitkommen? He wanted to translate the Danish verb: mĆtte, which has at least 2 meanings in German: müssen or dürfen. The girlfriend looked at him wondering why he asked her that, because she thought that he would like to go out with her, but she would not force him, so she answered: Nein, du musst nicht. My student thought that she wanted to go out on her own and misunderstood the situation wondering, whom she would be meeting. Actually my student thought that his girlfriend wanted to leave him.(reported by Danish man)


A Flemish child when watching an English film was confused between chicken = poultry (kip) and the translations kieken = stupid person and chicken = bangerik (someone not very brave) (reported by a Flemish Belgian)

I observed a critical incident the first day I was in Bergen, Norway, for my ERASMUS sojourn. I was in the residence hall kitchen with some other students. One boy (I don't know where he was from) was pouring some beer into the glass of a Spanish friend. After a second the Spaniard said "Vale, vale, vale!" (which, as everyone knows, in Spanish means "Enough, enough, enough!"). And yet the other boy continued to pour. The Spaniard shouted: "Hey, what are you doing? I said stop!" And the other boy answered: "No, you didn't, you said 'a lot, a lot, a lot!'" (Evidently this was true in HIS language.) So I suddenly saw that meanings do not reside in sounds since sounds mean nothing except in given contexts; in fact, meanings are solely the product of certain contexts. (reported by Italian female student)

Flanders/Holland. French fries are ‘frieten’ in Belgium, but ‘patat’ in the Netherlands. In Flanders ‘patat’ is used very informally for potato as a whole. This may be very confusing for Belgians (reported by a Flemish Belgian)
Once in a Hungarian restaurant the personnel greeted us with a typically Hungarian phrase which sounded like the name of my mother: "Anna". So every time they said this greeting, which was very often, my mother was thinking that someone was calling her. This was a bit funny.

Relatively informal questions e.g. among colleagues are often said in Flemish Dutch with a falling intonation e.g. I’m a bit cold. Could you close the window, please (Zou je het raam eens kunnen sluiten?) I have known English people to consider this rude because a falling intonation with a question tends to be interpreted as a command rather than a polite request. (reported by a Flemish Belgian)

In Belgium the first floor in a building is the one above the ground floor. The ground floor is not counted. In some countries the ground floor is already the first floor. (reported by a Flemish Belgian)


In Britain when you are ask native English speakers a question, they may make the sound "mmm" to mean "no." Instead, in Italy, you say "mmm" to mean "yes". This caused us many, many problems at first. (reported by Italian female student)


A Cypriot conversing with a Danish person that he has invited for coffee in his house in Cyprus:
"Aspen, would you like some coffee?"
"Thank you." he answers.
I assumed he meant yes. I later realised that he meant - no thank you. (reported by British-born Greek Cypriot)


English people find us (Bulgarians) rude because we don't say "please" after every second word, e.g.—Yes! “instead of—Yes, please!“


Mistakes in advertising, contains among other things well-know but probably made-up anecdotes such as the advertising slogan for the Electrolux vaccuum cleaner: " Nothing sucks like an Electrolux."


A 30-year-old Englishman learning Polish keeps asking his Polish friend of about 60 years of age questions starting with “Do you like…?” (e.g. “Do you like the soup?” “Do you like England?” ”Do you like the film?” The Pole finds it very difficult to understand and answer them, believing the Englishman to be patronising. The conversation usually fails. (Although the Polish language has a counterpart structure to “Do you like…?”, it is mostly used in a context different from English. The Englishman should be using completely different questions in order to keep the conversation going.)


6.4. Other communication problems



A Polish girl used to visit her Polish friend working for an Italian couple in Rome. Downstairs there was a chemist’s shop where the owner would always greet the girl enthusiastically and promise that if she was ever looking for a job, she should just see him and she could work in the shop with a wonderful salary without doing much. The girl eventually lost her job and indeed, she visited the chemist reminding him of the promise. However, he appeared surprised when he heard that and even got upset. Of course, the girl left without the job. (Poles take promises seriously, even if they’re just given in fun).



I was a bit hurt when a good Bulgarian friend of mine told me that he was going to the United States for a few year only a few days before he went. After all, it is nice to share things with friends and acquaintances, especially expectations and plans that have a great impact on one’s life. While he was in the States we kept up a more or less regular correspondence by email. All of a sudden he wrote to me that, about two weeks earlier, he had returned to Bulgaria for good, and again I was hurt because he had not mentioned this at all in previous correspondence. It did put a strain on our friendship until I was informed by another Bulgarian friend, a lady, that this “secrecy” was nothing unusual. Apparently there is a feeling that it brings bad luck to inform others of important plans or expected events and/or that informing other people might increase the risk that the plans cannot be carried out. The lady said that the cause should be sought in Bulgaria’s communist period, where people were afraid to say things even to their close friends for fear of being overheard, or for fear of informers. (reported by Dutch man)



A Polish woman, when her American friend complimented her on the new jacket she was wearing, replied “oh no, it’s old and really ugly” (even though she liked it too).


The Portuguese can say things like Oo, you look fat in a positive sense. (reported by a US expat living in Portugal)


I think Tom reported the Portuguese being capable of paying complements such as “You look fat”. That’s the case in Poland, as well; but nowadays it is restricted to elder people. My grandma (90 years old) says “You’ve improved,” (Polish: “Poprawilas sie”) when she sees me, which means “you’ve put on weight and you look better now.”


honesty / white lies

The Irish housemaster in a student house in Dublin was asked by a Croatian student to catch a mouse that was hiding in her apartment, but not to kill it. The housemaster said that of course he would not kill it; he would catch it and set it free outside. When a German girl who had been present when he said this asked him later whether he was really going to do this, he said: Of course not. I'll set a trap straight away. (reported by German woman)



Germans and Austrians more often upbraid people who breach regulations in situations in which Poles would probably not react. For instance if someone is riding a bicycle in an area where bicycles are not allowed or when someone is walking down a bicycle lane. It does not mean that Poles approve of such breaches of regulations, they just do not feel that they should be telling other people that it is wrong especially if the breach of regulations is considered not to be very serious. Probably Poles as compared with Germans and Austrians have a slightly different idea of the gravity of different kinds of misdemeanor – something which for a Pole would be a minor or trivial transgression not worth reacting, for Germans and Austrians is a cause for reprimanding. (reported by a Polish man in Austria and Germany)


problems in writing

One Bulgaria (me) and two French people (she is a Chief Editor of the French magazine or guitar and music, he a director of a bank) - he explained that it was unusual for him that I write on the two sides of the sheet of paper.(when he received my first letter)


Among the problems of written communication are the differences between alphabets. Many people tend to forget that Europe not only uses the Latin script. Cyrillic or Cyrillic-related alphabets are used in Greece and Cyprus (which are already members of the EU), in Bulgaria (which will be an EU member any time soon), in Serbia and FYROM if I’m correct (which might become EU members some time in the future) as well as in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, (which for the time being are not likely candidates). People who have never learned Cyrillic might feel quite disoriented when all the information is in Cyrillic and no accompanying Latin transliteration is available. It is like suddenly discovering one is illiterate. Even if you are in a country whose language you do not know, you feel more comfortable if you see familiar letters (there are a lot of words which look or sound similar in many languages). If you are surrounded by letters of an alphabet you have never learned you may feel quite insecure.


When I was in Hungary I went with friends to one of those open-air swimming pools with different kinds of mineral waters which are supposed to be very good for your health and general well-being. At the entrance there was a Hungarian lady who – as it seemed - did not speak any foreign languages. Her job was to hand out to the customers keys to changing-room lockers. We changed into our swimming suits, left everything we possessed in the lockers and as the keys were quite unwieldy to be carried around we decided to leave them with the lady and collect them when leaving the pool.  She wrote down on a piece of paper “8:30” or “20:30” (I do not remember exactly) and using her inventive body language she managed to communicate to us that we should collect the keys by that time because she would be leaving by then . We enjoyed ourselves in sulphur waters for quite a long and at around eight we discovered that the spa was deserted. Having the whole spa for ourselves we kept on soaking up the refreshing minerals for another ten minutes or so and then we set out to find the “keys” lady. To our amazement and horror she was gone. It was getting cold and dark. After some frenzy of searching for a living soul we managed to locate another lady who seemed to be a bit surprised seeing us in dripping wet swimming costumes, trembling with cold. We spoke to her in English and German but all we got in response was a flurry of Hungarian gobbledygook. Finally she seemed to have understood our body language (which mostly consisted of pointing to the place where the “keys” lady had been sitting before she disappeared); she made a telephone call and after a dozen minutes or so our “keys” lady came riding her bicycle all flushed, making angry gestures and more probably than not swearing at us in Hungarian. As it turned out later the Hungarians have a different system of writing the time; I cannot remember exactly but it seems that 8:30 for them is not “half past eight” but “thirty minutes to eight”. Still, Hungarians should confirm whether this is indeed so. (Reported by a Polish man in Hungary)






"He, who lives by the sword, perishes by the sword."  And the same thing holds for stereotypes, as you will see here.


7.1. How thinking in terms of stereotypes can get you into trouble


While in Ireland as an ERASMUS student, I lived with an Irish woman and we quickly became friends. One day I asked her if I could interview her for an intercultural research project because, for me, she talked and acted like a typical Irishwoman. She froze, then left the room without a word. Only much later, when we crossed in the hallway, did I find out why she had acted as she did. She burst into tears and asked me how I could be so tactless as to come to her country, come into her home, and insult her like that! Yes, my question had seemed like an insult! Only when I returned to Italy did I realize that, said with a particular tone, a similar phrase could seem offensive to me, too: "Ah, you're just like a typical Italian!" This is because people from other countries have given us Italians the impression that our national character is full of defects. And just as we have heard endless jokes about us, so have the Irish -- at least when in England. So now I imagine that I must have spoken to my Irish friend inadvertently putting strong emphasis on the verb, with a rapid fall in intonation: "You ARE a typical Irishwoman!" And that this was probably like saying to me "You ARE a typical Italian" which conjures up images of mafia, laziness and lack of discipline. (Reported by Italian male student)



In Poland, the perception of German people is that – among other things - they are very orderly, organized and punctual. Another thing is that - because of historical reasons – an angry German shouting or even talking in raised voice in German is for a Pole something of a rather ghastly sight. Conversely, Poles have this stereotypical image of being less orderly, less organized and less punctual, which is supposed to reflect their a bit more spontaneous and careless Slavic nature.  A couple of years ago I was invited with friends by a German acquaintances living in Berlin. We arrived, unpacked our things and went sightseeing while our German friends stayed at home as they took on to prepare a dinner for us, lasagne with wine, which obviously was very kind of them. The dinner was to begin at 7 pm. So, we - the Poles - were going around Berlin in a car admiring the Reichstag, the Siegesaule, the Berlin Wall leftovers, other historical places of interest as well as impressive modern developments. Finally we decided to see a recently constructed building of the Scandinavian embassy (all Scandinavian countries having one embassy in one building). We heard that the building was very modern, including the toilets open to the public, which after a whole day of sightseeing we were desperate to find and use. After we had done a sightseeing tour of those minimalistically beautiful Scandinavian toilets we discovered that we would be late for the dinner. Immediately we became struck with a panic attack, full of shame that we confirmed the stereotype of disorganized, chaotic Poles. We were horrified by the prospect of our German friends being angry and disappointed with us, possibly talking to us in raised voices in German! It may seem exaggerated but we were so uncomfortable with us not meeting the standards of German punctuality that for some time we were not able to call our German friends and tell them that we would be late. Finally we decided that not calling and informing our hosts about the delay would exacerbate the whole situation even further. I made the telephone call scared out of my wits that I would meet with a dry or irritated response but to my relief our hosts were very relaxed and understanding saying that it was no problem at all. That’s how I understood that one should avoid thinking in terms of those outdated silly stereotypes.


7.2. What it feels like when people stereotype you


Holland – Belgium: of course a lot of stereotypes exist about neighbouring countries. Dutch people used to call Belgians ‘stupid’ and although that is now less the case than earlier I sometimes feel uncertain in the company of Dutch people. I’m sure they mean all right but it has more than once happened to me that I was in a café discussing something and the Dutch person suddenly stopped me and said: “oh, what was that word you said? Say that again. It sounds so sweet.” I know they don’t mean to offend me but in my ears it sometimes sounds like someone who has a nice pet and says: “oh, how cute!!!!!”


I don't get the level of racism in some European countries, shown by widely reported monkey chants in Spain; and Lazio player Paolo Di Canio giving a Fascist salute on Friday evening (reported by an English man. Paolo di Canio appeared to make the gesture after his team Lazio beat local rivals Roma 3-1 on 6 January 2005) (what about British football jingoism? - BJ)


A lot of Poles have the experience of being stereotyped by Western Europeans as “Russians” or as some kind of Russian sub-nationality. My - and my friends’ - experience is that quite often even educated people from the West ask Poles questions such as “Are you part of Russia?” or “Is Russian the official language of Poland?” or “Is your predominant religion Eastern Orthodox?” or “Do you use the Cyrillic script in Poland?”. Since a lot – if not the majority – of Poles have a rather ambivalent attitude towards Russia (which in the case of Poland was one of the most frequent aggressors and occupiers) such questions tend to be amusing if not irritating.


Before Poland joined the EU a lot of Poles going to Austria had been subject to stricter than normal border controls by Austrian border officials. Generally speaking the perception of Poles in Austria was that of illegal or semi-legal manual workers who “stole” jobs from Austrians or who engaged in illegal activities. Initially, Poles who wanted to enter Austria for tourist purposes were treated suspiciously. This negative feeling was experienced especially by those Poles who were going to Italy via Austria. The border controls in Austria were often quite unpleasant compared with the controls at the Italian border – the Italian officials had a much more positive attitude towards Poles, maybe because of the apparent similarities in the national character and mutual sympathies and maybe because of the Polish pope. It seemed sometimes that for Austrians there was no such thing as a middle-class Pole who wanted to spend a week or two skiing in the Austrian mountains or just doing the sightseeing. Nowadays, because the middle class in Poland has grown quite substantially over the recent years and skiing holidays in Austria became affordable for a lot of Poles, this negative attitude has changed to a large extent. In fact a lot of Austrian organizations promoting tourism are running these days’ extensive advertising campaigns in Poland to convince even more Poles to spend their holidays in Austria.


Poles are sometimes stereotyped by people from the West as “hard-line” Catholics and enthusiastic supporters of everything the Pope says. Thus even if a Pole is atheist or agnostic or protestant or orthodox he or she will have to deal with confrontational questions and comments such as “Well, you Poles want to impose your Catholic morality or religiosity on the rest of Europe” or “Don’t you think that the Pope’s position on birth control is unacceptable in modern Europe?” or sometimes people from the West are trying too much to be sensitive and are overeagerly avoiding any subjects connected with the Pope or Catholicism in an effort not to offend a Pole. Both attitudes may give a Pole a strange feeling of being treated as someone not suitable for a serious and open conversation on certain topics to do with religion. While it is true that a vast majority of Poles are Catholic, it is also true that only a minority have “hard-line” views on religion. It is also worth knowing that in Eastern Poland there is an Orthodox minority. There are some Poles of Protestant denomination as well. There is even a community of Poles of Muslim faith who have lived for many centuries in Poland so they are not first-generation immigrants from Muslim countries but Poles whose ancestors settled down in Poland several hundred years ago. Despite being rather monolithically Catholic, Poland has enjoyed an overall long tradition of tolerance towards other religions. The fact that there was the biggest Jewish community living in Poland until the Second World War is an evidence of this (despite claims that anti-Semitism in Poland is deeper than in other European countries). One of the major Polish national heroes – Jozef Pilsudski – was Protestant (as well as one of the recent Prime Ministers).



7.3. What do others think? How people perceive other nationalities.

The Dutch Expat Group in Portugal

We think that the Portuguese:
* are afraid of taking responsibility, deciding and saying NO.
* are very friendly and patient (implying the Dutch are not?—T.G.)
* don’t have knowledge of cooking, with some exceptions
* show a range of class differences
* exhibit stupid behaviour and way of thinking towards people who studied after high school (This is a possible reaction by the Spanish speaking to their Portuguese boss, mentioned above—T.G.)
* trust in paperwork, stamps and documents
* have the idea that every product, from music to food, made in Portugal (é Nacional!!) is better, with the exception of electronic equipment from Germany
* have the habit of spending every holiday in the Algarve
* think coffee is bad for the stomach but that aguardente
(schnapps) at eight in the morning is good
We think that the English:

* are very open about making new contacts, but keep their distance afterwards
* are still looking for that local pub
* need all the traditional English events to survive here
* dress in a very old fashioned way

We think that the Danish:

* are socially very clumsy
* love to bring all their needs from home: toilets, ovens, IKEA, etc.
* have a very romantic idea of life in Portugal
* have too much trust in others

We think that the Dutch:

* always think they know better
* say what’s on their mind too quickly
* would rather talk than be more strategic
* love to talk about money too much
* have very low trust in Portuguese service, products and systems
* admire Spain and the Spanish

* speak with a very strange accent in English and Portuguese





This is about my first holiday with my Dutch partner (I am British), after having moved to Amsterdam. We communicated in Dutch, as I'd had a couple of courses by that time. We went to Paris. I'd never been before and he knew the city well, so he made quite a few suggestions about where to go and what to see. Every time he asked me to choose I'd shrug and say Het maakt me niets uit (It doesn't matter to me), thinking I was being polite, accommodating and easy-going, the ideal travelling companion in fact. I was just delighted to be there and happy to see anything and everything. To my amazement Peter, who was normally very easy-going himself, exploded after about a day and a half of this behaviour. He took it as a show of indifference and took me to task for being so blasé and disinterested. Of course, it was partly down to my choice of words but there was a definite element of intercultural confusion as well, since he expected his efforts to be rewarded with active and decisive enthusiasm as opposed to a more reserved British approach of letting someone else lead the way. (reported by a British woman, who had married a Dutchman and moved to Amsterdam)

Humour: a Russian student (female) told me (a Belgian) that she couldn’t understand why we made so much fun of ourselves. It appeared to her that Belgians don’t take themselves seriously. She found it difficult to react to people who laughed about themselves.


I was thinking that, as we are trying to find out about cultural differences in communication, perhaps we should ask ourselves what representatives of different European nations say with reference to e.g. pregnancy, childbirth, weddings, divorce, a new job, a house, personal income, (eating) food, personal achievement/success or failure, etc. In a sense, topics that a more intimately related to the individual and the microworld he/she lives in. For example, in English "Break a leg!" (used by theatre people) is a good luck wish; in other languages wishing somebody to break a leg would definitely sound like a curse!
From http://alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxbreaka.html: “There is a superstition in the theatre that wishing an actor good luck "tempts the gods" and causes bad luck, so negative expressions are substituted. In French one says Merde! ("Shit!") when an actor is about to go on stage. The German expression is Hals und Beinbruch="neck and leg fracture" (Bein used to mean "bone" in German, so the translation "neck and bone break" may be correct if the expression is sufficiently old). The leading theory is that the English expression came from the German, possibly via Yiddish. Other suggested origins are: John Wilkes Booth, the actor who broke his leg shortly after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865; the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who "had but one leg and it would be good luck to be like her"; wishing someone a "big break", that is, good luck leading to success; and the Hebrew hatzlacha u-brakha = "success and blessing".”


An educated Englishman of about 30 went to a restaurant with his Polish girlfriend and some other people. When he saw a girl sitting next to his partner, he said to the girl, “Move from here, please.” The girl was offended. (It is very rude to ask somebody you don’t know very well in such a direct way for anything, and the situational context of the restaurant made it even worse.)


Once I was interpreting for an English professor who was visiting my home town for two days before he went to another city several hundred of kilometers away .His hosts phoned to confirm they were sending a car the next day to pick him up from the hotel in the morning. That way, after a several hours' drive, he would be able to relax in his hotel before th eoffical dinner. According to his workplan, he was supposed to travel early in the morning, so Idid not expect any obstructions on his part. However, he instructed me to say he was not going to leave until 14:00 at the earliest. He wanted to take his time and go for a swim in the hotel outdoor pool. It sounded too awkward to me, but I delivered the message to the lady on the phone and to the local host. They were puzzled, too and assumed some meaning had been lost in the translation. Then the lady offered to pick him up at noon It took a couple of more rounds of such "negotiations" before it was clear that he was determined to forget about discipline and punctuality and stick to his new schedule "modified" at the spur of the moment. (reported by a Bulgarian)


The Swiss seem to have a tremendous trust in their political system, in particular in referenda. Swiss people actively participate in political life, they seem to be genuinely interested and involved in political decision-making. The Swiss make a serious attempt to make informed political decisions. Poles mistrust politicians and the whole political system. This may have its roots in communism, when people did not identify with the political system. This Polish mistrust was further reinforced by the corruption and hardships of the transformation period after 1989. It is common for the Polish people to express their lack of interest in politics and to withdraw from any form of participation in political life. On the other hand there is quite a lot of jingoistic saber-ratting in Poland, political squabbles and other nationalistic sentiments both among politicians and ‘men in the street’. The difference between Poland and Switzerland is that the Swiss have a more serious, honest, down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach

to politics. (reported by a Polish man in Switzerland)


Public holidays

In the UK they have 'Bank Holidays', in most continental EU countries this is an unknown concept, I think. Some of the continental EU countries have holidays to mark certain (originally) Christian festivals, including, in Holland for instance, 2de Pinksterdag (Whit Monday) and Hemelsvaartdag (Ascension Day). Any others like that elsewhere? (reported by Dutch man)




When I was in London I met a lot of young Japanese people, who were really friendly with me. Then my ERASMUS sojourn came to an end and departure time arrived. My Japanese friends came to see me off: I embraced each one, giving them a kiss on each cheek, first the girls and then... when I tried to embrace the boys they looked frightened, took a few steps backward and blurted out: "You see, in Japan, we only shake hands... only shake hands." I was very surprised... but then I realized that what for me was innocent for them was improper. So goes the world. (reported by Italian male student)

A year later I found myself in Japan, where I stayed with a Japanese host family. Every evening my host family would take a very hot bath. Each member of the family first had
to take a shower and then entered the large, steaming tub. One evening I was very tired and so once I had taken the shower, I felt I was clean enough for bed; besides, I had no energy left to face the hot bath ritual. So I simply went to my room. Well, the next day the whole family looked very hurt. But -- I asked myself -- why should they care? There is no physical difference if I have the bath or not. In fact, many times in the past I was tired, too, and only "pretended" to get into the tub. And not only because I was tired. I also tried to avoid getting into the tub since the water was not changed and therefore was the same for everyone! Hierarchically, the father got the cleanest water, then the mother, then me: it was like ruining the cleansing effect of the shower! But this "logical" reasoning was a waste of time: I knew that for them the bath was a ceremony, a ritual, and by overtly refusing it I was refusing their way of being. (reported by Italian male student)

This summer I went with a group of university students to study in China for two months -- in Peking, to be precise. One evening we all went together to a restaurant outside of town and, when it came time to pay, we all chipped in and added a few coins for a tip. The total amount for the tip wasn't very much; nonetheless we hoped it would be satisfactory since, it Italy, it is customary to leave very small "symbolic" tips, especially if one is a student.
The restaurant owner came, counted the money, recounted, and then looked up at us and exclaimed: "But this is too much!" We told her not to worry and to keep the change but she insisted on giving us back the amount exceeding our bill (i. e., our tip). After a long discussion in which we attempted to persuade her to take the money, she bowed slightly and left the dining hall. So, we thought, we managed to convince her after all! But suddenly she reappeared, holding in her arms a large number of bottles of mineral water -- as though, with the money left for a tip, we had ordered them to take away! Back in the center of Peking we asked many Chinese people if they thought that somehow we had offended the restaurant owner; but no one was able to give us a satisfactory explanation. (reported by Italan male)

This summer, I visited China and one day, while coming back from a shopping centre by taxi, I tried practicing my Chinese with the driver. To make conversation, I asked him: "How long have you had your licence as a taxi driver?" The man turned around and glared at me with resentment and shouted: "It has been more than 30 years that I have been doing this job, young lady!" I thought that my question was a simple one. Evidently, in China you only ask how long a person has been doing a job if he is not doing it well. (reported by Italian female student)

One student from Cabo Verde (a former Portuguese colony off the east coast of Africa) noted the difference in cinema audiences in Lisbon and her native country: The Lisbon audiences quietly watch the film, no matter what happens while at home, audiences scream and cry out when something scary happens as well as letting characters on the screen know (quite audibly): “He’s behind YOU!”, etc.

Someone from Africa in Belgium in a lecture about the history of the Low Countries asked the following question: Before Belgium became independent in 1830, who were its colonial masters? (reported by a Flemish Belgian)

Muslim sensitivity?
At a fund-raising dinner in the UK for Palestinian undernourished children my partner made the acquaintance of various organisers, including a young woman from (originally) the Jemen who, it turned out, had lived in the UK since early childhood. She wore a headscarf, but no veil and seemed quite talkative and outgoing. My partner (English, female) had just shaken her hand and I (Dutch, male) was about to do the same, but she withdrew her hand and said, by way of explanation, that she was not allowed to shake hands with men. I was somewhat taken aback, but made no point of it, just mentioned my name and said 'pleased to meet you' (or words to that effect) and so did she. But it did strike me as a kind of culture-shock. This was the first time this had happened to me, and it reminded me of an incident not long ago, which was shown on Dutch TV, when the (female) Dutch immigration minister was meeting a number of imams working in the Netherlands and the same thing happened to her the other way round (with one of the imams at least, who refused to shake hands with her, saying that the Koran forbade him to do so).
There are millions of muslims throughout the EU, so I think it is important that we are (and make our students) aware of this kind of possible cultural clash. I don't know so much about it, but it seems to me that this is not typical of muslim practice in general, but only of a more fundamentalist subgroup (a minority, perhaps?).


I had a critical incident when I was in New York. I met some nice guys in a park and we started talking. They almost immediately asked me if I had a job and... how much money I earned!!! To me this was really weird because in Italy asking such a question is not polite. I felt doubly embarrassed because I had to explain that I didn't have a job as I was a student. But they told me they were students, too, and they had a part-time jobs. Later I realized that this topic is natural in their culture: their society honors a man who succeeds quickly in life and who has made a lot of money as a young man. (In Italy we think he must have cheated, or has a rich father who cheats on taxes, etc..) Among those guys there was a sort of friendly competition about who was the most successful (for example they delivered pizza and each night they said how much they earned with tips). (reported by Italian male student)


I have an Iranian student who never shakes hands with ladies at Pharos and at the beginning some people were surprised. Then we realised they dont shake hands with women in Iran. (reported by UK-born man)


Last summer I went to Tunisia with my fellow University students to study Arabic. Being typical Italians, we often communicated with gestures and body language. For example, to say "it's time to go" after a meal in the student cafeteria, we would use either a verbal idiom (tagliamo la corda, let's cut the rope) or a gesture that indicates the same thing: the left hand, held out vertically, represents the rope and the right hand, held flat, hits it sideways like a knife. After a few times we noticed that the Tunisian students in the cafeteria were looking at us strangely, as though they were amazed that we were declaring so openly what we were about to do. Only at the end of our stay did we discover that the gesture just described means "let's make love". (reported by Italian female student


Others (of the type: Notice in a Bangkok temple: It is forbidden to enter a woman even if a foreigner if dressed as a man) can be found at http://www.balettie.com/private/Humor/English.html. The only one that is really funny is: In the brochure of a car rental firm in Tokyo:
When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigour


As an exchange high school student in the US, I was invited to a swimming pool party by my American classmates. At some point it turned out that my history teacher was invited to the same party, and we happened to meet (and talk) in the water, which felt pretty uncomfortable for me since the teacher-student relationship is quite formal in Poland (reported by a Polish woman).


Once we took a walk in the famous “Bazaar of Tunis”. I saw some very interesting sculptures in a shop. I went in and touched one. I also asked the price. The owner answered and I put it back and wanted to leave. He started a negotiation. I told him that I didn’t want to buy it I just had never seen such kind of things before. He continued the negotiation and became angry very soon. He almost hit me. Somebody came over from another shop and helped me to leave the place in peace. He said that touching a good and asking its price is a sign in the Arabian world and it means that you want to buy that thing. He also said if an Arabic person invited me into his house I should not admire anything because he would think that he has to give it to me. (Once we (Hungarians) spent our holiday in Tunisia. We have some frightening and interesting experience.)


My friend mentioned that he spent a few months in Dubai. Once he saw a Koran and touched it. The Arabians in the shop almost killed him because it is acceptable to kill a faithless if he touches the holy Koran. (Once we (Hungarians) spent our holiday in Tunisia. We have some frightening and interesting experience.)


When we were in bargaining with Arabians they kept extremely short distance, less than 15 cm. They almost put their face into ours. (Once we (Hungarians) spent our holiday in Tunisia. We have some frightening and interesting experience.)

When they made an appointment they said: “OK we should meet tomorrow afternoon”. My friend asked: “OK it is good. When exactly?” The answer was: “When the sun will be somewhere there” showing into the clear blue sky. And it was a usual time definition for them and never said exact time. (My friend (German) spent a few months in Gambia for working. He was in contact with the local people.)

When he went to Boston, he looked at people on public transport and look at people’s eyes. Somebody asked him “Do we know each other?” “No, I don’t think so!” “In this case why are you staring at me?” It is normal in Hungary to keep eye contact with strangers but unusual in Britain or in the USA. (My friend (Hungarian) is a professor in the US.)

He went to the beach with his family (he has a wife two daughters and a son). He wore short swimming trunks. Everybody stared him. Wearing short swimming trunks means that the guy is a gay. In Europe it is normal. (My friend (Hungarian) is a professor in the US.)

Looking at girls is all right in Hungary. Girls feel that they are attractive good shaped and well dressed when boys look at them. In the USA it is sexual harassment and it is almost a crime so boys and men never look at women in the street. (My friend (Hungarian) is a professor in the US.)