When in China, don't give a clock as a gift. It symbolizes death. When in Greece, don't make the OK sign, thumb and forefinger touching in a circle. It is an offensive gesture. When in India; don't give a Hindu a gift made of cowhide. It is sacrilegious.
Knowing how to behave abroad can save people from some major social gaffes. However, etiquette writers and experts disagree over how far people should go in complying with foreign habits and customs that can create great discomfort to the uninitiated.
Some visitors follow a rule of thumb. They weigh how much displeasing their host matters to them against their degree of personal discomfort.
'During our briefings, we help people develop respect for the country they are going to live in,' said Claire Stewart, who works for an organization which teaches manners to people being transferred overseas by their companies or universities.
Letitia Baldridge, an authority on manners in the United States and the author of a book on the subject, said:
'Good manners are not elite, artificial or snobbish ways of behaving. Manners are a combination of common sense and consideration for others. It's 75 per cent common sense and 25 per cent thinking about others.'
Ms Baldridge, who began her career as social secretary to an ambassador and his wife at the US embassy in Paris, now teaches manners to international executives and charges thousands of dollars a session.
Her advice covers every aspect of social behavior, including smoking manners, flag etiquette for banquets, writing letters of apology, and the proper form for business cards.
Everywhere, it has become extremely complicated to be polite. Not only are customs different but in many countries standards of behavior have changed in recent years.
A young British banker recently found himself at a house party in Sydney. After a barbecue, the hosts invited everyone to climb into a large bath tub to relax. The hosts' rule was that to participate you had to take your clothes off.
'I had the option of not going in, but you feel a bit of a fool if everybody else in there is naked,' said the banker, who decided to take the plunge. To make matters worse, he was attending the house party with his boss. The hot-tub session, during which business was discussed, lasted three hours.
'Even though it felt quite good, an Englishman's reserve scarcely allows him to feel comfortable in these circumstances,' he said. 'Coming out is just as embarrassing. I was all wrinkly.'
Mrs Stewart said she believed that the banker had done the right thing, although he had an option. He could 'have had the sangfroid to decline with grace without' making the Australians feel stupid,' she said.
In a business situation, 'short of doing something unethical,' the best advice is usually 'to go along with whatever the foreign custom is,' she added.
Alexander Moorrees, a young American investment banker in London, was invited by some
British friends to spend a weekend at their home in the country. The weather was below freezing. The manor house to which he had been invited had no central heating and the bedrooms had no fireplaces. 'I kept waking up every hour to make sure I was still breathing,' said Mr Moorrees. 'I was worried I was going to die of hypothermia.'
Finally, at 3 a.m., fearing for his health, he took all his blankets, went down to the main living room, built a fire in the large fireplace, and went to sleep in front of it. He has not been invited back.
He could have followed Ms Baldridge's rule No. 2 when visiting a foreign country:
'Become familiar with the dress code in that country.' If so, he might have added long Johns and a ski mask to his wardrobe.