International travel can be good for both the individual entrepreneur and her company's profit margin, but going abroad on business is all filled with pitfalls. You know the usual ones from jet lag to misplaced luggage, cultural misunderstandings to regulatory hurdles. But there are also subtler ways to screw up abroad.
Every country has its quirks and unwritten rules of behavior. Violate these norms and you offend people or come across as a complete dolt (or in extreme cases even get to meet local law enforcement). So how do you avoid these missteps?
Handily, question-and-answer site Quora recently crowdsourced the wisdom of natives of tons of countries you might travel to on business, asking them to outline the most common ways travellers to their native lands accidentally offend. Here are some of the highlights:
Germans are sticklers for manners, according to Judith Meyer. "Remember all the things your mother and grandmother told you about manners and about doing things the right way? That really matters in Germany," she writes. "There are a lot of rules for this on very diverse issues, from being on time to not speaking with your mouth full to using an appropriate level of formality/festivity when the occasion calls for it."
If you're Germany-bound, you should make sure you pack some nice clothes. "Dress somewhat better than the average American. T-shirts are only acceptable if it's above 20C [68F] outside. Avoid tennis shoes unless you are actually in the middle of exercising," she adds. Also, don't overdo the friendliness. "Avoid coming across like an overeager puppy in your early interactions. Germans like to gradually warm up to people and taking the time to really get to know them before acting like BFFs."
According to Balaji Viswanathan,, Indians are really not big fans of PDA, so avoid "kissing in a public place. In some jurisdictions this can get you into jail under 'public obscenity'... Although the law enforcement cuts some slack if the couple is married, if the couple is unmarried things can get really messy."
Along similar lines, be cautious about trying to hug or shake hands with a member of the opposite sex. "Unless the local offers to hug or handshake, don't. This is not illegal and no one goes to jail for hugging/handshakes. Just it is a custom," he explains.
Nope, the Irish don't actually say 'Top of the morning to you'. "I don't know how this phrase became associated with Irish people, perhaps it was used in the distant past. But its not now, and it's just really irritating," complains Deirdre Beecher.
Another no no? "Don't attempt an Irish accent, mainly as to us there is no Irish accent, there are Cork accents, Dublin accents, Kerry accents etc.," she explains. Should you be invited to someone's home, "you will be obliged to take some liquid refreshment. Most likely tea or coffee. Your hostess will not be able to relax until you do, so for her sake take a cup even if you're not going to drink it." Finally, don't be offended if you're the butt of jokes. Being made fun of is a sure sign you're a hit, according to Beecher.
Makiko Itoh offers this advice for visitors to her native land: don't tip anyone ever, not even small amounts ("tipping is just not part of the culture"); always take your shoes off when you enter someone's home, and "don't talk on your cellphone in trains. While it's not against the law, it's considered to be rude since it disturbs people around you."
Forget what your watch says, if you're travelling to Kenya expect everything to run on "Africa time," writes Rose Thuo. "Everything runs late, don't get pissed off or impatient, learn to go with the flow, things will happen, just not on time. When you get pissed off at lateness people will take you to be fussy."
Her other tips? Most Kenyans are religious so avoid showing any disrespect to religion, also avoid public displays of affection, and always mention people's titles. "It is taken as a sign of respect. So Miss, Mrs, Mr., Dr. and Engineer so and so (mostly the surname) are totally accepted," she instructs travelers. "If you want to call someone whose name you don't know, refer to them as madam or sir. You get quite a lot of bonus points for that. Only refer to someone by their first name if they introduce themselves as such."
Beware the bikes! "Don't just wander onto a bike path. Watch before you cross!" warns Martijn Vos. "Don't assume bikes are not real traffic; they are. If you don't watch out, eventually you'll find some bike barreling down on you at 30 kph, ringing madly, while you stand there panicking and flailing your arms. Don't be that tourist."
Marijuana, famously, is legal in the Netherlands, but if you don't want to annoy the natives, don't smoke it just anywhere (where you bought it or at home are safe bets) and don't assume the Dutch all smoke -- many don't. And last but not least, "don't address people by their title," Vos advises. "We ignore titles completely. It could even be considered slightly embarrassing to be addressed by your title."
Think you're fine to drive after that one beer? Norwegians would beg to disagree. "Do not drink and drive. Not even a tiny little bit. We don't find this funny. We stick people in jail for a first offence -- even if you didn't get as far as leaving the parking-lot. People in bars might physically fight you / wrestle keys from you to prevent you from driving drunk," writes Eivind Kjrstad.
Also, Norwegians might be pretty relaxed about nudity, but if you see someone walking around in their birthday suit, don't take that as an invitation to take a good, long look. "You are however expected to look away," Kjrstad explains. Finally, don't be offended if no one calls you doctor or sir. "People are very informal here and being on a first-name-basis with anyone short of the King is the norm."
Thinking of bringing a nice bouquet to thank your Russian hosts? "Don't give even number of flowers as a gift. That's for dead folks. Proper bouquet will have 1/3/5/7/... flowers," cautions Katherine Makhalova. She also advises travelers to remove their shoes when entering Russian homes and avoid criticizing the government. "We do it a lot by ourselves, we don't need your help in that," she says. Negative comments about the Soviet Union should also be avoided, especially with those over 40. "They grew up at those times and might be nostalgic. Even if they enjoy modern life they might not like hearing foreigners talking about it."
Makhalova also offers an important safety tip. Icicles look pretty but can be deadly. "Don't come too close to building's roofs," she warns. "If one falls on your head it can kill you."
According to Xu Beixi a lot of seemingly innocuous things can get you fined in Singapore, so avoid spitting, feeding the birds, smoking in public, bringing your pet out in public, or eating or drinking on public transport. Things that are small crimes elsewhere, such as urinating in public or vandalism are probably not on your agenda, but be warned, if they were, you'd face stiffer consequences in Singapore than at home.
"Do not say anything negative about the king of Thailand and the royal family. Most people love the king. If you say something bad about the king, people will hate you. You can also go to jail," offers Pachara Yoosawat. Also, "do not raise your voice in public," she adds.
What advice would you give to travellers to your country?