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Travelling abroad? Don't forget your passport and etiquette

ET Bureau|
​Thou shalt not order one-by-two soup
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​Thou shalt not order one-by-two soup

Should you split a bill in Beijing? Should you give a tip in Tokyo? Should you say Merry Christmas in Maryland? As Indians increasingly travel abroad — to both East and West, for business and pleasure — they have to navigate a minefield of manners and be mindful of local customs. India Inc tells you what to do and lets you in on its own learnings.

Thou Shalt Not Order One-by-Two Soup: Shiladitya Mukhopadhyaya knows the old Indian soup trick: order a bowl and say 1 by 2, that charmed code word for the server to divide one portion for two people. The 35-year-old sales director at mobile marketing platform Clever-Tap knows that is par for the course in India where dishes are shared in a spirit of casual camaraderie and congenital thrift.

Last month, he was introduced to a set of Swedish rules while he was out at a restaurant with his friends in Stockholm. “We got seven bills for our table,” he recalls. The server asked each one of them what they had ordered and issued separate bills.

In countries like China, Japan and South Korea, however, the most senior or the richest person at the table often picks up the tab. Sometimes it is even considered impolite to offer to pay in the presence of a senior person.

What to Do: Get a sense of the restaurant etiquette of a country before you traipse along for dinner. Have a split pea soup but do not split the pea soup.

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​Price Tag: To scratch or not?
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​Price Tag: To scratch or not?

It is the quintessential Indian ritual before wrapping a gift: remove the price tag, or scratch off the figure, or use a ball pen with all the vehemence one can command to conceal it. Indians think it’s tacky to flaunt how much they have paid for a present.

Deep Kalra, founder & group CEO of MakeMyTrip, says, “In North America, it is considered thoughtful to share gift receipts while giving a present so that a person could return or exchange it, if need be.

Since I am pretty certain that sliding in the receipt with the gift will not be perceived quite the same way in India, I have never attempted it here.” In fact, he confesses that he couldn’t bring himself to reveal the price even in the US although he knew “it is considered a very decent thing” there.

What to Do: Keep or remove the tag, depending on your whims and the flaunt quotient of the price.

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​Wish list
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​Wish list

During festivals, most companies across Europe and the US prefer the inclusive, generic wish “Happy Holidays” to “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah”. In India, the wish is almost always specific — be it Diwali, Holi, Eid or Christmas.

Lloyd Mathias, business strategist & angel investor, warns, “In the West, wishing for a specific festival can be seen as being culturally insensitive to other communities.”

What to Do: Stick to "Happy Holidays".

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​Present Tense
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​Present Tense

On Chinese New Year, you can gift flowers of all kinds — roses, tulips, carnations, orchids, hibiscus — as long you stay away from white. White is the colour of mourning in many Asian countries, says Lloyd Mathias, business strategist & angel investor, who picked up gift tips during his stint with HP in Singapore.

Gifting a clock, too, is a no-no as it suggests death. In China, Singapore and Hong Kong, guests usually give cash as wedding present. “The amount depends on where the wedding is hosted. If it’s a posh venue, the gift will amount to about S$200.

Expats could check with the locals,” says Mathias. In India, meanwhile, the value of wedding gifts is directly proportional to how close the guest is to the couple as well as the former’s economic status.

What to Do: Why offend with white flowers when you can offer your Beijing friends some Mao-red roses?

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​Horn not OK please
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​Horn not OK please

On one of his early trips to the UK, Marzdi Kalianiwala, head of marketing & business intelligence at BookMyShow, was driving through a small English town when he saw someone cross the road with a kid, and honked.

“Sitting next to me was my friend from England who stopped me, got off the car and apologised to them. He told them I was from India and looked more embarrassed than me.” Kalianiwala tries to honk less often even back home now, although Mumbai’s traffic doesn’t make things easier for him.

What to Do: Respect pedestrians and slow down for them.

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​Lift your etiquette
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​Lift your etiquette

When he is in the US or Europe, Piyush, founder & CEO of sports social gaming platform Rooter, makes sure that he greets strangers upon entering a building or a hotel’s elevator. “I don’t know if I will do that in India as people may find it creepy,” he says.

Anil Nair, CEO & managing partner of ad agency L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, says he has learnt to respect personal space even in lifts. “In India, every time we enter an unmanned lift, we press the button to our floor. Abroad, you request the person standing closest to the button panel to do it for you.”

Nair learnt it the hard way that this is about respecting people’s personal space even in an elevator. “On one of my visits to San Francisco years ago, I almost startled a man standing in front of me in an elevator as I put my hand out to reach the button panel myself. He jumped and I realised how this looks like to the other person.”

What to Do: Acknowledge strangers when you/they enter a lift.

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​Say hello to thank you
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​Say hello to thank you

On her maiden trip abroad to Singapore, two decades ago, Deepali Naair, now director of marketing for India & South Asia at IBM, had an epiphany. “People thank you for the littlest of things. Took me 48 hours to pick it up,” she says.

Since then, she dutifully thanks everyone across sectors and strata for their services or kindness, at home and outside. “Some people are astonished because they have never heard a thank you or even a mere acknowledgement of their work. It makes you realise that as a country, we need to say our thank yous more often.”

What to Do: Don’t skimp on expressing your gratitude to anyone who has provided you any kind of service — the taxi driver, the doorman, the server.

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​Do not "Are you feeling any better, Mr Paul?"
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​Do not "Are you feeling any better, Mr Paul?"

While travelling to the US during his Pepsi stint, business strategist Lloyd Mathias learnt that it is impolite to ask a friend’s parents about their health. “It is interpreted as, ‘You think we are dying or what?’” he says.

What to Do: Avoid asking personal questions to anyone other than close friends.

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​Tipping Tips
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​Tipping Tips

From his decade-and-a-half-long stint in the US, Sanjay Nath, managing partner at Blume Ventures, has picked up the habit of tipping even in his current country of residence, India, where people aren't known to be generous tippers. Nath says, "It is important to know the economics of the service industry of the country you are in." In the US, for instance, most service industry employees are contract workers who make a large part of their earnings from tips. "But there are countries like Japan where tips are considered inappropriate," he adds.

As a rule, whenever he checks into a hotel in a new country, he asks the staff if it's acceptable to tip the person who is taking his luggage into the room. "When you ask genuinely, they generally respond in a similar fashion and give you an idea of the acceptable range for tipping in that country for various other services."

With great cultural exposure often comes great cultural confusion. In some cases, it is possible to find a way out. For everything else, you can always send a bouquet with an apology note. Just remember to keep the white flowers out.

What to Do: Talk to locals and find out about the acceptable range of tipping.

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