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). Here are the most dangerous topics around the world, rated according to a special 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 Egypt 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: 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.
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: 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.
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: 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.
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: 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).