Five Strange Etiquette Rules from Around the World
By Jeremy Fancher
A 1955 Good Housekeeping article, entitled “The Good Wife’s Guide”, proffered some helpful suggestions for keeping your man happy after his long days of three-martini lunches and chauvinistic charades. Put a ribbon in your hair, be fresh looking, and remember that his topics of conversation are more important than yours. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes, and make sure to speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice. Above all else, remember, “a good wife always knows her place.”
While we, at least in the western world, have escaped — well, kind of escaped — the confines of our subservient wives and chipper, repressed Boy Scout troop leaders, the formal world of social mores is still chock full of silliness and absurdity. Koldcast TV’s comedy series Mister French Taste provides a fantastic take on today’s cosmopolitan struggle to offend no one and impress everyone. At the intersection of Hong Kong, brimming with tremendous wealth and relentless shoppers, and France, brimming with restrained elegance, haute cuisine, and the likes of Chanel and Louis Vuitton, lies the microcosmic struggle between Leon, the unkempt son of an elite Hong Kong family and his freshly pressed but romantically hapless French etiquette teacher — aptly named Mister French.
You are watching Episode 1 of Mister French Taste, “The Job Interview”
As Mister French tries to groom young Leon into the “boy his parents always dreamed him to be,” you might wonder where exactly etiquette authority comes from. Is it simply extracted from the ether? Is there some ancient tome from which all etiquette and fashion dictates are issued? In search of the Rosetta Stone of etiquette, we found some of the more ridiculous, absurd, and confusing “rules” of etiquette across the globe.
Meeting the Queen
The best place to start is, of course, British royalty. When the Queen planned a trip to America to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first British colony founded in the New World, a hotline was set up to help us backwater Americans navigate the complex rules surrounding interfacing with Her Majesty. The British are expected to curtsy when meeting the Queen, and must never turn their backs to her. However, Americans must not curtsy, and should give at most a small deferential nod or bow. Why? Because we’re not British, of course.
For the extreme bargain hunters, Iraq offers some great travel opportunities since the war ended in December, though the State Department still notes a very real possibility of “kidnapping, murder, and general armed violence”. While a personal bodyguard will help you avoid said kidnappings and violence, there are a few rules of etiquette that we might imagine more than a few American soldiers totally screwed up while “touring” the country.
First, you must never expose the soles of your feet to anyone. Relaxing with your feet up on the table is a big no-no. Second, the “OK” hand signal and the “thumbs up” gesture are considered obscene. One could see an innocent negotiation with a merchant going badly very quickly. Third, never eat, shake hands, or gesture with your left hand. The left hand is seen as unclean. This is a view that prevails in much of the traditional Islamic world. Why is it seen as unclean? One hint, toilet paper is not widely available.
Click to watch Episode 2 of Mister French Taste, “Meeting Leon”
Cotillion and Debutante Balls
Socialites in America find an equally challenging etiquette obstacle course. In fact, many upper class and aspiring upper class Americans will send their children to cotillion classes to pound into them basic lessons for dining and dancing their way to economic success.
A true cotillion, though, is a formal dance originating out of 18th-century France, a square dance with four couples called a quadrille. Similar in formality, debutante balls were a 17th-century ritual for families to shop around their nubile daughters to eligible bachelors. Then, women were formally presented to society through the ball, and until their debutante debut were disallowed from being seen in public with a man. By the way, as a single man, cherish a debutante ball invitation. Don’t bring a date; you’re being invited to dance.
These dances are laden with highly specific codes of etiquette. At the famous International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, tables go for upwards of $20,000, and the likes of French princesses and Hong Kong fashion heiresses are formally presented. In these situations, knowing the strict code signals your upper-class provenance; if you have to ask, you don’t belong. An unexpected rule: don’t wear a watch. Wearing a watch shows that you care about what time it is; you are expected to signal complete and timeless devotion to the young minxes.
Death Threats in Japan
Speaking of rituals and death, do not, under any circumstances, lodge your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice while in Japan. The Japanese formally honor the recently deceased by placing a bowl of rice in front of the coffin with a pair of chopsticks standing vertically. Similarly, in China, sticks of incense are placed upright into a bowl to wish death upon someone. Particularly at a private home, doing so with your chopsticks is tantamount to a death threat.
I’m circling back to the British here, but it’s just too easy. At social clubs, port wine must always be passed to the left — helpful hint, port is the left side of a boat. You must also make sure to always pour a glass for the person to your right, and never let the decanter (port wine is traditionally decanted to filter out the sediment) stall in front of you at the table.
If someone asks you who the Bishop of Norwich is, respond immediately by passing the port to the left. If you fail to catch on, your dining acquaintance will say, “He’s a terribly good chap, but he always forgets to pass the port.” I’m seriously not making this up. Some have suggested that port wine was passed left so that right-handed people, in the majority, could keep their sword hand free.
You’re now certified to survive a meet-and-greet with Her Majesty, a meal with a traditional Islamic family, and a $14,000 ritualistic courtship. Do what you will with the rules, but if you’re feeling like a bit of a l’enfant terrible, turn your back to the Queen, call her Liz, and ask her if she knows who the Bishop of Norwich is.
Jeremy Fancher is a second-year student at the University of Michigan Law School. He is left-handed, and wishes he had a dog, which he would name John Elway. Jeremy would hypothetically enjoy taking long walks with said John Elway.