Mixing with the locals is the fastest way to the heart of a place—and it’s easier than ever, thanks to Airbnb, Couchsurfing, Eatwith and the like. There’s only one catch—you think Paris’ transit system is tricky? Try navigating the wildly varying cultural norms across Europe. There’s nothing quite so deflating as meeting new people, and promptly (however inadvertently) offending them. See our best tips below.
1. Don’t give flowers as a gift.
Flowers’ symbolic meanings vary widely by country: In Latvia, red roses are for funerals, not valentines. Chrysanthemums are the French funerary flower. In Germany, yellow roses mean the host’s partner is cheating, lilies are for funerals, and heather is associated with cemeteries. Throughout Europe, even-numbered bouquets are considered bad luck, as are groups of 13.
2. Follow locals’ lead when it comes to alcohol.
In Spain, wait to take a first drink until after the first toast and you only toast with alcohol, not water or soft drinks. Keep quiet and don’t drink until a toast—no matter how long-winded—is finished in Georgia and Azerbaijan. In France, don’t refill your wine glass without first offering refills to the rest of the table; forget bringing wine to dinner, the host will want to select a vintage that pairs with the meal. In Russia, vodka should never be refused—it’s a symbol of friendship—and toss it back neat, sipping is considered rude. In Germany, looking people in the eyes when you toast is mandatory—on threat of 7 years bad luck in the bedroom.
3. Don’t let your clothes send the wrong message.
Generally speaking, Europeans dress more formally than Americans, even for something as simple as a trip to the supermarket. But beyond a prevailing societal norm that workout gear is only acceptable for exercise, there are also more specific, regional rules when it comes to clothing that may catch you by surprise if you don’t do your research. In Romania, don’t shake hands with your gloves on. Take your overcoat off indoors—in Russia and parts of the former Soviet Union, to do otherwise implies your hosts do not properly heat their home. In Czech Republic, stay buttoned up in business meetings, at least until the highest-ranking person in attendance removes his or her jacket. In Poland, and many parts of Europe, it’s considered impolite to speak to people with your hands in your pockets.
4. Mind your gestures.
Even the most essential of gestures can mean very different things than they do in your home country, so avoid using gestures until you’re sure you know what they mean at a destination. In Bulgaria, locals shake their heads yes and nod no. Making the peace sign, or “v” for victory is the equivalent of flipping your middle finger in Ireland and the UK. In Italy, Spain, France, Greece and former Yugoslavia extending your index finger and pinkie and shaking your fist in the “rock on” gesture, is tantamount to taunting the person you point it at about a cheating partner, whereas in Norway it’s the sign of the devil. Skip the “okay” sign, too—in France, Portugal and Greece it simply signifies “no good” or “useless” but in Turkey and Malta when you curl your thumb and index finger into a circle you’re comparing people to a very private part of your anatomy. Flicking someone’s ear is a homosexual slur in Italy, and cracking your knuckles is considered obscene in Belgium.
5. Save your smile for the right occasion.
In many parts of Europe the easiest way to identify an American on vacation is by their seemingly aimless grin for the world at large. Flashing your happy face in a business setting is considered unprofessional in Russia. In France and Czech Republic smiles are reserved for friends and families, rarely bestowed on strangers.
6. Respect local coffee culture.
Few things are more likely to scandalize the locals and get you a frosty reception at a café or restaurant than botching your coffee order. Don’t order cappuccino after breakfast in Italy, or espresso before or during a meal. In Spain, café con leche may be ordered at breakfast or as an afternoon pick-me-up, but shouldn’t be ordered with any meals after midday. If you must have a white coffee after dinner, try a cortado—an espresso cut with a splash of milk. In Austria’s historic coffee culture, the worst mistake visitors make is trying to generically order a coffee, an offense in a culture with a multitude of options.
7. Leave your chewing gum at home.
In Europe, walking around with a wad of chewing gum in your jaw isn’t just uncommon, it’s often regarded as impolite. Most Europeans chew gum briefly after a meal, and spit it out in short order. In the Netherlands, chewing gum while talking is considered rude, and in Belgium and France, chewing gum at all is considered vulgar.
8. Time is relative.
Concepts of time and punctuality vary across Europe. In the Netherlands, being early, even to the tune of 5 minutes, is unacceptable. In Germany, punctuality is a matter of respect for other people’s time. In Spain, Italy and France, being 5-10 minutes late is considered within the norm, and not frowned upon, even in many professional settings. In Poland, for informal events in people’s homes, always arrive 15 minutes later than the agreed upon time to allow the host to prepare, but not more than 30 minutes late.
While doing some research ahead of time will help, you’re bound to commit a few faux pas on your travels. The bottom line: Don’t sweat it. Some of my biggest bumbles have made for my most memorable travel experiences, like when an elderly Greek baker with massive, arthritic hands lectured me in her halting English about rude gestures when I used the “ok” sign to confirm my order of a spiral-shaped Skopelitiki pastry, or the time I almost toasted with a glass of lemon Fanta to the horror of my Spanish friends.