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Throwing shoes and blowing noses

What’s important to know as we trek around the world? We asked experienced travelers for their advice about traditions that can open doors and keep you out of trouble.
Image: George Bush
Remember when President Bush recently had to dodge a pair of shoes? Anyone familiar with Iraqi culture knew immediately that hurling shoes at someone wasn’t just weird — in Iraq it’s a sign of contempt.Aptn / AP file

When President Bush ducked a pair of shoes thrown by an Iraqi reporter during a recent press conference in Baghdad, he called it “one of the most weird moments” of his presidency. Anyone familiar with Iraqi culture knew immediately, though, that hurling shoes at someone wasn’t just weird — in Iraq it’s a sign of contempt.

The “shoe incident” reminded PR account executive John Kreuzer of the “peace sign incident” and a lesson he learned back in 1992. While visiting Australia, former president George H.W. Bush flashed a peace sign with his palm facing inward. That gesture, Kreuzer’s junior-high-school history teacher explained in class the next day, “actually means the same thing as giving the middle finger in many countries. He intended to give the normal two-fingered peace sign but made the mistake of giving it backwards.”

So what’s important to know as we trek around the world? We asked experienced travelers for their advice about traditions that can open doors and keep you out of trouble.

Meet and greet
Samantha Brown, host of the Travel Channel’s “Passport to Great Weekends,” has noticed that in France and Latin America especially, people treat their stores and shops as if they are their personal homes,” so she urges travelers to make a special point of greeting shop owners when entering a store and saying goodbye on the way out. She admits that doing this in France at first seemed strange to her, “since in NYC the unspoken rules are ‘You don’t acknowledge me, I don’t acknowledge you.’” But when she tried making the extra effort, she discovered that “shop owners responded. Sometimes they’d even go out of their way by speaking in English to help me.”

Terms, tipping and nose-blowing
When planning a trip in the Australian Outback, “Remember that the term ‘highway’ in Australia might not refer to a high-speed, high-capacity road” says guidebook author Laine Cunningham. “It can mean anything from a freeway to a two-lane road with crumbling edges that cuts through extremely remote territory. Always carry extra fuel, water and spare tires.” And once you get somewhere, “Tipping is not done Down Under ... unless they hear your American accent,” she adds. “The exception is taxi drivers, who also don’t receive tips from locals but are notorious for pressuring Americans for tips.”

On a trip to Mexico, management consultant Lisa Koss was reprimanded for putting change onto the counter for a purchase. A Mexican colleague told her that it was considered disrespectful to mindlessly “pay the countertop” instead of putting the change into the person's hand and making eye contact. “By giving the money more intentionally, you are acknowledging the person while making a transaction,” says Koss.

Heading to Nepal? Leon Logothetis, host of the Fox Reality TV show “Amazing Adventures of a Nobody,” says that it’s a sign of respect to take off your shoes when you enter a temple or someone’s home. “Also, it seems that blowing your nose in public is not approved of,” he says.

For more on the meaning of gestures in other countries, global culture trainer Peggy Hazard swears by the books in Roger Axtell’s “Do’s and Taboos” series and warns travelers to pay careful attention to what they do with their hands. “Direct hand gestures and individual fingers have vastly different meanings all over the world and can even be construed as offensive,” says Hazard. “The OK sign of circling the thumb and index finger doesn’t always mean ‘OK.’ It’s considered vulgar in Brazil and Germany and means ‘worthless’ in France.”

Is that a yes or a no?
Sometimes you don’t even need to say or do much of anything to get into trouble in another country. Strategic foreign policy consultant Charles Francis says he had a hard time remembering that “unlike the rest of the world, Bulgarians shake their heads from side to side to indicate ‘yes’ and use an up and down movement when they’re saying ‘no.’”

While having dinner with his daughter one evening at a quaint little restaurant in rustic Dimitrovgrad, Francis got his yes’s and no’s mixed up. “My daughter had to help poor old dad home after I mistakenly shook my head “no” (which in Bulgarian means “yes”) when the young lady in the restaurant asked if I wanted another bottle of wine.”

More tips from around the globe
Staff members of the public TV program “Worldfocus” not only want you to stay up to date on current affairs, they want you to be mindful of your travel manners.

A few other tips when globetrotting:

  • “Don‘t pull your hand away if an Arab businessman walking with you takes your hand and holds it as you go. It’s a sign of friendship,” assistant producer Mohammad Al-Kassim, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, advises.
  • In Asia, “When taking stuff from others, use both of your hands. And when sitting, sit still. Don’t shake your feet or rest your feet on the chair,” says assistant producer Hsin-Yin Lee, who is from Taiwan.
  • When eating in Europe, remember that “it’s very rude to put a piece of bread on your plate. Leave it on the table beside the plate. Also remember to break the bread with your hands and not with a knife,” notes production assistant Illaria Mignatti, who is from Milan.
  • In Russia, it’s taboo to give an even number of flowers, warns researcher Christine Kiernan. “Always buy odd numbers. Bunches of even-numbered flowers are for funerals.”
  • Mind your words, author and foreign language expert Mark Frobose warns, because they often don’t mean what you think. “In Spanish, ‘embarazada’ does not mean ‘embarrassed,’ it means ‘pregnant.’” he explains. “And ‘constipado’ means ‘stuffy nose.’”

The lesson learned? Before setting out to visit a foreign country, it’s a good idea to study up on the traditions and customs of that land. That goes for presidents as well as travelers without spokespeople to explain any unintended gestures.

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for