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First Do No Harm…Every country has its subtle taboos and unspoken codes, but when you get down to it, it’s what you say, not how you say it, that really gets you in the door (or kicked out). Our guide to the most dangerous topics around the world rates them according to our own alert system, from highest to lowest risk, followed by a few safe subjects that might put you back on solid ground.
THE MIDDLE EAST
In a part of the world where nearly every facet of life has become wrapped up in politics and religion, keeping things personal and avoiding the global is more than just a way of being polite: For both tourists and residents, it can be a coping strategy. Even naive attempts to find common ground (“You have Christians too!”) can easily backfire. Not that residents from Morocco to Israel to Jordan don’t love a good debate, but it might be a life-and-death argument in which the opposing sides can’t even agree on common premises. Entering with an open mind and a do-no-harm approach is essential, and in many cases a focus on the simple things (friends, food, family) can create an oasis of peaceful coexistence.
Absolutely verboten: Anything having to do with the position of Jews in the world; you may hear conspiracy theories.
Radioactive: The lack of democracy in the country; the prevalence of corruption; and the threat of religious resistance.
Definitely not: Suggesting peace with Israel as a way to build bridges might lead to a backlash; the truce is much less popular with the populace than it is with the government.
Not a good idea: Terrorism and its impact on stability and tourism.
Ill-advised: It’s best to avoid bringing up the Coptic Christians—an underclass here—even in terms of trying to find common ground.
Talk away! The country’s cultural relics and historical importance—or simply steer the conversation back to business.
Absolutely verboten: Israelis certainly discuss the Palestinian “situation,” but a certain exhaustion has set in. Starting out with accusations of ill treatment will not get you very far. Discussing it even with Palestinians might lead to weary responses.
Radioactive: Referring to the security fence under construction as “the wall” would be considered a loaded statement.
Definitely not: Any mention of racial divisions—not just between Israelis and Palestinians but also between European and Middle Eastern Jews—should be approached carefully, if at all.
Not a good idea: The assumption that Israelis are religious, or questions about levels of belief. There is a great deal of diversity of religious commitment as well as some conflict between religious and secular Israelis.
Ill-advised: Asking exactly how someone served in the army (foot soldiers versus Intelligence Corps) might bring up class issues.
Talk away! Israel as a thriving democracy; the quality and freshness of the food.
Absolutely verboten: Any criticism of the king or inquiries into the royal family.
Radioactive: Homosexuality—many Moroccans will assert that it doesn’t exist here.
Definitely not: The fraught history of the Jews who used to live here, which challenges the notion of Morocco as a tolerant place.
Not a good idea: Comparing the status of women in Morocco with Western women, or even questions such as, “Why is your wife not coming along?”
Ill-advised: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict—not a great subject, but less charged than in other Middle Eastern states.
Talk away! The fine cuisine; and the peaceful and tolerant atmosphere.
Absolutely verboten: Honor killings, which have been in the news lately and are a source of shame for many Jordanians (and you may not want to engage the ones who approve).
Radioactive: Criticizing Islam—the subject is just as sacrosanct here as in Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
Definitely not: Saying anything negative about the kingdom—which is illegal anyway.
Not a good idea: The Palestinian situation, but especially the refugees in Jordan who don’t have full citizenship or sovereignty (despite the fact that together with Iraqi refugees they outnumber Jordanians).
Ill-advised: The historic treatment of bedouins—although it’s fine to document their many past achievements (slightly analogous to Native Americans in the United States).
Talk away! The country’s relatively high level of development; and the queen’s beauty and good works.
Absolutely verboten: Modern-day racism—people like to think of themselves as having moved completely beyond the apartheid era.
Radioactive: The situation in Zimbabwe; and South Africa’s lack of intervention against Robert Mugabe.
Definitely not: Former president Thabo Mbeki’s controversial (and counterfactual) views on HIV and AIDS.
Not a good idea: Corruption charges against Jacob Zuma; and general political infighting.
Ill-advised: Criticisms of the government’s performance in the post-apartheid era.
Talk away! Nelson Mandela; equal rights; and relative prosperity
Getting Along in the Muslim World
No matter what brings you to the Middle East, navigating the religious and political taboos requires following a unique set of rules that apply more or less across the region
ISLAM There are ways to discuss the religion while in no way implying that it’s fallible. Lindsay and Wes Heinlein, who served in Jordan with the Peace Corps and have traveled throughout the Middle East, developed their own way of discussing the issue. “Although Islam is not an actively proselytizing religion, concerned folks will want to know you’re going to the same heaven as they are, just as in America,” says Lindsay. “Agree that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all religions of the book,’ and then change the subject.”
ISRAEL It’s too easy to get wrapped up in defending against the various conspiracy theories that abound about the country. If confronted with one, try to change the subject (family is a favorite) and perhaps move toward an agreement that the governments are at fault. Many Middle Easterners will happily agree that Jews per se are not to blame. But all in all, it’s a sticky subject.
FOR MEN Verbally praising another man’s wife or daughter—especially complimenting her appearance—is inadvisable. Wes remembers playing foosball with a Jordanian at a center for the disabled; sometimes they would play not for prizes but for “honor,” and Wes once said, “Let’s play for your sister’s honor.” The man would not talk to him for months.
FOR WOMEN Mentioning relationships outside of marriage may not earn you public reprimands, but it will often result in a lack of respect. Some Western women even refer to “fiancés” back home and call male friends “brothers” in order to fend off prying questions.
DRINKING It’s often done on the sly, and mostly by men. For women, discussing drinking is inadvisable. “In tourist areas, it’s fine for women to drink in public,” says Lindsay, “just not to talk about it the next day, as in, I got so bombed!’ ”
COMPLIMENTS Sometimes complimenting someone’s belongings will result in being offered those objects as gifts. It’s such an ingrained tradition that locals have even jokingly offered their children to the Heinleins. This also means that a compliment directed toward your own possessions may come with a similar expectation.
PORK</> In predominantly Muslim countries, even non-Muslims do not eat pork. It is considered unclean, and no amount of persuasion will change anyone’s mind—so it isn’t really worth bringing up the subject. You won’t find any pork regardless of what you say. THE AMERICAS
Several quirks of geography and economic development have shaped this hemisphere’s sensitive areas (we shouldn’t say “taboos”; compared with much of the world, it’s a pretty easygoing place). Catholicism is more deeply rooted in some countries than in others, and very liberal nations (Brazil) coexist with others that consider themselves the peak of propriety (Chile). And then, of course, there is Latin America’s proximity to the United States and the desire to demonstrate equal standing. Finally, in the case of Canada, there’s the desire to prove itself a bit apart from the noisy neighbor who insists on dominating so much of the conversation.
Absolutely verboten: The Dirty War and the “disappeared” of the 1970s, definitely still a deep trauma in the nation’s psyche, are not to be referenced casually.
Radioactive: The Peróns, whose legacy is much debated. You never know how an Argentine will feel about them.
Definitely not: The Falklands War may seem like an amusing ’80s footnote, even to Brits—but certainly not to the nation that lost.
Not a good idea: The economic crises of the past several years, for which many hold the International Monetary Fund and American policies responsible.
Ill-advised: Lumping Argentina in with all of Latin America (many Argentines believe that they stand apart from the rest of the continent).
Talk away! Argentina as unique within the continent; its prosperous past (if not present). And most middle-class people have therapists and love to talk about them.
Absolutely verboten: Impugning Canada’s national health-care system. Canadians are fiercely proud of it. In a television contest, viewers voted the founder of the system the greatest Canadian hero.
Radioactive: Remarking how similar Canada is to the United States can be tantamount to calling it the fifty-first state.
Definitely not: Any reliance on a few stereotypes (e.g., making fun of how they say, “Eh?”) may unearth the sarcasm beneath their (stereotypical) politeness.
Not a good idea: Be careful in discussing Toronto and how wonderful it is; many regional Canadians, especially out west, don’t like it.
Ill-advised: Don’t mistake politeness for the casual oversharing so common in the United States. Canadians, like Europeans, will bristle if you get too personal too fast.
Talk away! Hockey—they really do love it as much as we think they do. The runner-up in the Canadian-hero contest was a hockey coach turned sportscaster.
Absolutely verboten: Dwelling on money, whether fussing over how to split the check (“People will think you’re greedy,” says Brazilian-American Paulo Padilha) or asking what someone does for a living.
Radioactive: Bringing up the level of violence or constantly asking if it’s safe to go out. There surely are many problems, but it’s not something to harp on.
Definitely not: Padilha cites the rule, “No politics or football at the dinner table.” As a foreigner, you can bring up soccer—politics, not so much.
Not a good idea: Making light of Catholicism: Brazil may be a fairly liberal country, but even an urban sophisticate may be a deeply devout Catholic—no Vatican jokes, please.
Ill-advised: Commenting crudely on women, which can get you into hot water as a gringo.
Talk away! Music is universally beloved, so praising Brazilian song, or even asking if your acquaintance can recommend an artist, is always a good idea.
Absolutely verboten: The dictatorships of either Augusto Pinochet (on the right) or Salvador Allende (on the left), about whom opinions are passionate and vary widely.
Radioactive: How great a time you had in Argentina. Chileans can be a bit touchy about their internationally acclaimed neighbor to the east . . .
Definitely not: . . . And their other neighbors—Peru and Bolivia—with whom they had territorial clashes in the nineteenth century.
Not a good idea: Sex or toilet humor, without prompting—despite its modern gloss, Chile is one of the more conservative countries in Latin America.
Ill-advised: Pisco as a Peruvian drink. Though it really is, the Chileans consider the liqueur to be a source of native pride.
Talk away! Chile’s rolling hills; its wineries; and the cleanliness and modernity of Santiago.
Absolutely verboten: Crime and corruption: It’s sure to be a topic of discussion, but it’s not something you should bring up in a cavalier way.
Radioactive: As in Spain, bullfighting is a matter of cultural pride, so stumping for animal rights may not win you many friends.
Definitely not: Immigration is a fact of life, but the United States’ policy on illegals is a sore point—and sometimes a humiliating one.
Not a good idea: Mexico is still a strongly Catholic country, which means religious and social questions are best approached delicately, particularly in rural areas.
Ill-advised: In general, getting down to business before coffee, even during a quick business lunch, is considered rude.
Talk away! Always talk about marriage or family. Knowledge of Mexico’s cultural heritage and food (not Tex-Mex) will go a long way, as will familiarity with such family rites as the quinceañera.
ASIA AND THE PACIFIC
It’s likely you won’t find more diversity of political systems and social mores—to say nothing of complex colonial histories—than on the largest continent. Here you’ll encounter rigid cultural rules in thriving democracies (like Japan) and no-go conversational zones mandated by law (China). The prevalence of the concept of “face” in East Asian cultures also means that arguments have the potential to threaten the very foundation of a relationship.
Absolutely verboten: Indigenous rights, this being a country that shares our sordid history as a colonizer (only it’s a more fraught topic Down Under).
Radioactive: Don’t bring up the settled-by-convicts thing. “It’s old, not appreciated, and not entirely accurate,” says Donna Thomas of New Zealand Travel.
Definitely not: Gay rights: Australia’s closer to the United States than Europe on these issues, with a variety of opinions, and there is a federal ban against same-sex marriage.
Not a good idea: Don’t inquire too deeply into personal wealth or money matters—on this, Australians can be surprisingly reserved.
Ill-advised: Confusing New Zealand with Australia. The differences are important to both, especially to Kiwis.
Talk away! Australian football; and the casual openness of its people.
Absolutely verboten: The “three T’s”—Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square. These are rarely discussed and would be hard to bring up without sounding presumptuous about “internal” matters.
Radioactive: Relations between China and Japan. Never compare them; in fact, avoid saying anything too positive about Japan.
Definitely not: “How many children do you have?” With the one-child policy, the answer is either obvious or best kept on the down-low.
Not a good idea: Religious freedom or human rights, whether they apply to the Falun Gong or the Uighurs.
Ill-advised: The Cultural Revolution. The Chinese do discuss the period, but it’s best to avoid asking someone what he or she was doing at the time; people could easily have been on either side of the campaign.
Talk away! The success of the Olympics and the speed of development.
Absolutely verboten: Pakistan’s status versus that of India (aside from the border dispute, there is competition for aid and favor from the West—a balance of power that shifted after 9/11).
Radioactive: Ethnic riots and the partitions of the past. India jealously guards its status as a multiethnic democracy.
Definitely not: Inquiring whether a marriage was arranged—or simply assuming it was. There are gradations of how “arranged” a marriage is, and you might miss the subtleties.
Not a good idea: Joking about call centers or any of the results of outsourcing.
Ill-advised: Class hierarchies, economic inequality, or the caste system. Even innocently asking to help out a servant in the kitchen can lead to tension.
Talk away! Openness and diversity; the growing economy; and the fact that India is “the world’s largest democracy.”
Absolutely verboten: World War II and Japan’s role in it, particularly the way it treated its neighbors.
Radioactive: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a source not just of trauma but of shame. Many still hide the effects of radiation, and, even in those cities, the bomb is almost never discussed.
Definitely not: Treatment of certain outcast groups and minorities—and Japan’s general lack of interest in accepting immigrants.
Not a good idea: Discussing religion in any great detail. Many Japanese practice Buddhism and/or Shinto, but they rarely talk about it, even with their families.
Ill-advised: Remarking on the fact that women seem to be serving men in so many situations. It’s deeply ingrained, and you’ll only cause a loss of face.
Talk away! All the ultramodern designs and conveniences; and the overall health of the people.
Absolutely verboten: The Korean War and World War II—there is very little hand-wringing or discussion of past (or even present) political strife.
Radioactive: Don’t fixate on the similarities among the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. It violates not only political taboos (especially Japan’s treatment of Korea during World War II) but the Korean notion of ethnic and cultural uniqueness.
Definitely not: Maligning the government. There’s limited freedom of the press and not much of a tradition of political criticism.
Not a good idea: Asking where someone went to college. It happens to be an accurate (too accurate) indicator of social class.
Ill-advised: Assuming familiarity with someone who’s older than you (by using his or her first name, for instance).
Talk away! Before getting down to business, it’s not only polite but mandatory to inquire about someone’s age, marital status, and number of children.
Absolutely verboten: Bad-mouthing Ho Chi Minh: Even in the south, the Communist liberator is widely admired.
Radioactive: Saying the Vietnam War didn’t go far enough, or that it was “lost.” There is by no means even a private consensus that the country would have been better off had the United States won.
Definitely not: Comparing the Vietnamese, favorably or otherwise, to their counterparts among refugee communities stateside. Their worldviews are often vastly different.
Not a good idea: Asking about prostitution in Southeast Asia. There is much, much less here than in Thailand—something they’d very much like tourists to know.
Ill-advised: Asking too many personal questions. According to travel specialist Sandy Ferguson of Asia Desk, the Vietnamese a“` re relatively reticent compared with others on the peninsula.
Talk away! Vietnam’s hard-fought independence and its (relatively) successful modernization since the seventies.
Absolutely verboten: Disparaging comments about the royal family—or even probing questions, like those of succession.
Radioactive: The recent coup against its not-very-popular elected leader. The situation is still tense and unstable, and thus politics are best avoided.
Definitely not: Prostitution as a local problem. Thais will discuss it but generally blame it on Western sex tourists.
Not a good idea: There is a significant Indian minority that arrived decades ago as guest workers, whom some “native” Thais tend to dismiss (Arab visitors are also a touchy subject).
Ill-advised: Buddhism is taken very seriously in Thailand. Do not disparage or make light of it—or purport to know all about it because you read a book or two.
Talk away! It’s best to emphasize Thailand’s relatively prosperous and democratic position in the region, despite recent setbacks.
Its current liberalism and stability notwithstanding, the peaceful continent still has some historical skeletons in its closet. And while it’s hardly a powder keg like the Middle East on the issue of American power, those were certainly a rough eight years we’ve just gotten through. Cultural presumptions continue to rear their head across the American-European divide; wade into them carefully.
Absolutely verboten: Talking money. Wages are almost never a topic of conversation, even in vague terms. Any long conversation about prices of real estate, schools, etc., is probably not a good idea.
Radioactive: Joking about France’s surrender to the Germans during the war—not really a laughing matter.
Definitely not: Asking a woman how old she is is even worse in France than in other parts of the world.
Not a good idea: Overly detailed discussions of dietary restrictions or requirements, which will make you look unreasonably fussy and “American.”
Ill-advised: The immigrant underclass and, conversely, the anti-immigrant right-wing movements (and how many votes they’ve gotten in a few past elections).
Talk away! The food, of course; and the other glories of French culture.
Absolutely verboten: Hitler and the Holocaust. Some will talk about it incessantly, some will avoid it—but let them initiate the discussion.
Radioactive: The Israeli situation is a frequent subject of debate here, but one they’re understandably reticent about discussing with foreign visitors.
Definitely not: Talking too much about shopping or bargains may not offend anyone, but it might bore them or mark you as a typical American consumerist.
Definitely not: Don’t conflate northern and southern Germany, which are considered very different; and try to study up a bit on the geography and culture.
Ill-advised: Excessive small talk is not appreciated; Germans can become uncomfortable if made to discuss the weather for 15 minutes.
Talk away! Demonstrating decent knowledge of the nation or language, or even global social issues, will get you far.
Absolutely verboten: The junta in the late sixties and early seventies, which many Greeks still think was backed by the United States (Americans believe we just failed to stop it).
Radioactive: Cyprus: Its invasion by Turkey and its division are definitely sensitive subjects.
Definitely not: Tensions with Turkey in general, and whether the United States is evenhanded enough (or too evenhanded) in mediating those conflicts.
Not a good idea: Kosovar independence, which many Greeks opposed. They make less noise about it than the Russians but were closer to the action.
Ill-advised: Minority absorption and immigrant rights—you’d sound holier than thou if you brought it up.
Talk away! Greece as the cradle of Western civilization; and the leisurely pace of life.
Absolutely verboten: Northern Ireland. There is peace, but often a peace built on sidestepping the issue. “We’re very good at avoiding things,” says Irish-born novelist Colum McCann.
Radioactive: Religion, particularly Protestantism versus Catholicism as it bears on the issue above.
Definitely not: Bashing the British won’t get you far—it’s a cliché. Ireland’s had a rough history but moved beyond it in many ways.
Not a good idea: Don’t call yourself Irish if your great-grandfather was from there. It’s fine to talk about your roots but not to presume permanent cultural citizenship.
Ill-advised: Sex is no longer a no-go zone in Ireland, though among the older generation you might feel the lingering effects of a long history of Catholic prudery.
Talk away! So long as you avoid politics, the Irish love Americans. Talk about the countries’ commonalities and about Ireland’s rapid economic growth in recent years.
Absolutely verboten: Any mention of atrocities committed in Chechnya or Georgia.
Radioactive: Defense of American actions in Serbia, which Russians consider evidence of a double standard when accused of human rights violations.
Definitely not: The implication that Russia is not as advanced as other Western countries, politically or otherwise.
Not a good idea: Putin is sometimes criticized, but anything breezily dismissive can easily draw defensive protests.
Ill-advised: General liberal pronouncements against sexism or racism risk arousing the accusation of political correctness.
Talk away! Russia’s entrepreneurial streak; its centrality in the world; and its cultural treasures (literature, music, and art).
Absolutely verboten: The Armenian genocide—writers have been prosecuted just for saying it took place.
Radioactive: Anything in support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—or about Kurdistan in general.
Definitely not: Anything negative about Atatürk, the founder of modern secular Turkey.
Not a good idea: George W. Bush. You’ll hear an earful, and they might even bring him up, but it’s best to just nod even if you don’t agree on how awful he was.
Ill-advised: Saying something—even positive—about someone’s wife or mother can be taken as offending their honor.
Talk away! Says travel specialist Earl Starkey of Protravel International: “Football [soccer], children, and family—without too much detail.”
SMALL TALK VS. BIG TALK
Political and religious variations aside, there’s an overriding issue when it comes to getting along in different parts of the world: Is it a small-talk culture or a big-talk culture? It’s difficult to generalize, but suffice to say that in East Asia, where the concept of “face” reigns supreme and showing emotion is verboten, raising a contentious subject at the table can lead to the fatal breakdown of a relationship. Cultures with a strong tradition of hospitality and ritual—like some in the Middle East—also demand a certain level of tact, especially with elders (never mind all the political minefields). Contrast this with France and Italy, with their coffee-klatsch culture, or Germany, where small talk is taken for vapidity. In Israel, beating around the bush will get you nowhere. “They don’t sugarcoat,” says Nancy Schwartzman, an American documentarian who has filmed in Israel. “Being overly polite is viewed with a lot of distrust.”
One American expat says of Argentines, “They have an opinion on everything—whether they’re informed or not.” And then there’s Russia, where dinner-table pronouncements are raised to an art form, and being yelled at by someone who just handed you the pierogi is a sign that you’re “inside,” that the froideur of Russian street manners has been stripped away in the warmth of the hearth. So the next time a French businessman berates you on the evils of imperialism or a Russian cab driver rants about the absurdities of political correctness, take it as a sign of respect. And listen politely—but hold your ground. At any rate, it’ll be easier to engage now that Bush is gone. More than any other event in recent history, Obama’s election has been a great boon to American travelers everywhere, with Israel possibly the sole exception.
What Americans Won’t Talk About (According to Everyone Else)
1. The effect the U.S. government has on the rest of the world. It is the number one topic of conversation in many countries, but it raises hackles over here. According to Alec Mally, a former diplomat who now lives in Greece, Americans there are occasionally referred to as “killers of peoples,” and the U.S. president as “the guy who runs the planet.” But it’s not something they’d say to us.
2. The policies of George W. Bush. Of course he became unpopular here too, but many people around the world find it hard to believe we elected (and reelected) him in the first place.
3. That we are not the best country on earth. This is perhaps even more of a sore point—on both ends—than the two above.
4. Religious differences. Especially in the developed world, we’re seen as taking our religion way too seriously. The part it plays in our daily lives—and our politics—is something they’d be careful about bringing up.
5. Our family status. Across the Mediterranean and Asia, the first question you’d ask acquaintances is whether they’re married, whether they have kids, and if not, why not. But they’ve learned that the question can cause defensiveness here.
6. Violence. One of the worst effects of the stereotypes our pop culture forces on the world is how violent America is. The image is exaggerated, and in many places things have gotten much better in the past 20 years—but not every tourist knows that.
7. Race relations. This may be a little less of an issue since Obama’s election, but the belief reigns in many places that we have deep-seated issues with race—issues we’re too often apt to avoid, even if we do sincerely adhere to our politically correct beliefs.
8. Economic inequality. Let’s face it: We like to believe we’re a classless society. The world, for the most part, does not see us that way. For Europeans, the presence of the homeless and the lack of social services can be incomprehensible. For those from poorer countries (with plenty of inequality but far less prosperity), it’s more a matter of global injustice.
9. Someone’s appearance or weight. In many cultures, “you look fat” is not a rude comment. They may even say it with a smile and are taken aback when we get offended.
10. How we’re all the same. Visitors have been surprised at how regionally varied the states are—and how sensitive some Americans are about being lumped together as one culture.