‘Travel broadens the mind’ so the old idiom goes, and with so many wonderful places to visit, people to meet, and cultures to explore, it is unsurprising to find that people who are more widely travelled are more comfortable and more successful when it comes to adapting their behaviours to those of wherever their latest adventure takes them.
But with every new culture, and every new people, there many pitfalls for the Perfect Gentleman to avoid, and a little background knowledge can save untold amounts of embarrassment on both sides. There are obviously the larger, and more obvious areas that are more often considered: business, dining, dating, making the first impression, and dress codes. But often, it is the small, habitual mannerisms that can be the difference between an unintentional insult, and perfect cross-cultural experiences.
A basic understanding of human history can enlighten a gentleman to what he can expect of an unknown culture based on cultures of people with a shared history.
Latin countries (both in Europe and in South and Central America) are more accepting of physical proximity and interactions during conversations, especially compared their close neighbours descended from Germanic tribes (modern day Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland) who tend towards more personal space, and limit physical contact to handshakes, except among close friends and family. As always, the best advice with physical contact, is to let the other person initiate any advances in proximity.
Throughout India, Malaysia, and Indonesia it is considered very rude to touch somebody on the head, as the head is seen as the home of the spirit or soul, but this is not a belief that is held in Tibet, or south western provinces of China. It seems likely, that as an almost impassable barrier to migration, the Himalayas has kept the cultures either side of its peaks separate.
Right-handedness dominates eating. Admittedly, on average, only ten percent of the world’s population is left handed, and it is natural that the vast majority of right handed people would determine the social norms, so that in almost all countries food is conveyed to the mouth with the right hand. For Europe and the US, it is unusual but not frowned upon for people to prefer to use their left hand to eat, but in India, South East Asia, and the Middle East it is not acceptable to use the left hand to eat at all, as it is considered unclean. This belief appears to be linked to the spread of Islam in the 14th century from the Middle East, through India and South East Asia.
Almost the world over it is still seen as polite to show respect to your elders, or to those who are seen as socially superior within a group. That respect is often show by making introductions to the elders first, to serve them first, or to present gifts.
No matter the culture, for a gentleman in an unusual social situation, it is always a good idea to observe the customs of the local people, and take your lead from them if you are unsure what the correct forms are.