Don't Be the Ugly American

Simple tips to survive the European culture clash
Page 1 of 7   |  
Become one with the City of Lights: Paris' Moulin Rouge (Corbis)
First Timers
If you're new to the Old Country, here are a few tips to put you ahead of the learning curve and away from the evil eye:
  • WC stands for “wash closet”—meaning bathroom
  • Don't tip in most European countries unless the service was truly exceptional; simply round up to the nearest euro.
  • In places like the Czech Republic it's customary to share seating at tables. A gesture and a smile will likely get you an invitation, and some great pub conversation to boot.
  • Most movie theaters have assigned seating, so keep an eye out for a seating chart when purchasing tickets.
  • Avoid the très obvious signs of the ugly American: Loud exclamations, baseball caps (especially worn backwards), fully-slung backpacks, and white sneakers—especially when stepping out at night. Think smart casual.
  • Always learn four words in the local dialect: hello, goodbye, thank you, and you're welcome. And then use them.

For sheer cultural diversity in one continent, you don't get any better than Europe. Countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal may share borders on the map, but culturally they are worlds apart. This is fascinating from an anthropological point of view, but it can be an etiquette minefield. Don't put your foot in the merde! Follow these key pointers to tread a smooth path when in Europe.

The French have a reputation for rudeness, and with some of the world's best wine, food, fashion, and art, they could be forgiven for feeling smug. However, the oft-quoted stereotype is more likely a culprit of cultural misapprehension. Follow these tips for turning that stiff French upper lip into a smile:

  • Have a go at speaking the language, even if it's only "bonjour" (hello) and "merci" (thank you). Chances are they'll reply in English anyway, but French folk greatly appreciate the effort. Try and throw in a "Madame" (lady) and a "Monsieur" (gentleman) when entering a shop, restaurant, or hotel.
  • A definite no-no: when in a bar or restaurant, never call the waiter "garçon"—it's patronizing and massively offensive.
  • At restaurants and bars, service is always included. Only leave a tip if your waiter has gone the extra mile.
  • The French have a penchant for eating their meat rarer than Americans (steak tartar, anyone?). So if you want your steak medium, best ask for it well-done.
  • Always shake hands when meeting someone for the first time. Friends and acquaintances tend to greet each other with a kiss on each cheek—unless you're both fellas. If you're ever unsure what to do, let them make the first move.
  • If you're getting a glass of water from the tap, you want the one marked "F"; "C" stands for "chaud"—meaning hot…

Published: 13 May 2005 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »