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Social Tips

Invitations and Responses

Cultural differences abound in issuing and responding to invitations. In most cases, the invitation will come addressed to all the family members invited. If a spouse is not specifically named, he/she is probably not invited. It is inappropriate to bring a date to a working event. However, in some places, one invitation addressed to the family is meant to include everyone in the house, even guests and visitors. Responding is very important and should be done, generally by phone, within two days of receiving the invitation. Be sure to observe the request on the invitation. "Regrets only" means to call only if you will not attend, and "RSVP" means to respond whether you will or will not attend.

Greetings and Forms of Address

Although you should follow the guidelines about greeting, addressing and introducing someone in the formal international scene, you will need to learn about the local informal customs as well. Try to learn a few polite greetings in the native language that will get you through the more casual social situations. You will also need to be aware of different greeting rituals such as kisses, handshakes or bows. In some countries, for example, it is not uncommon to see men show affection. Tremendous differences exist in how close people stand to socialize, how loudly they speak, and how much eye contact they maintain. The best advice is to be observant and ask questions of the foreign service nationals and experienced officers at post. Show interest and concern in learning a different culture; most people will respond graciously.

Local concept of social time

In some countries, an invitation for 8:00 p.m. means you should arrive at precisely 8:00 p.m. In some other countries, it means you should arrive no earlier than 9:30 p.m. To avoid awkward and embarrassing situations, ask questions before attending social events. The foreign service nationals who work in the mission are a valuable resource, as are experienced officers at post.


Dress, too, varies according to country and event. Women should be particularly mindful of conservative dress rules, such as skirt length, low necklines, and having one's arms covered. Remember that "casual" in other countries almost never means jeans or shorts. It is always better to be too dressed up than too dressed down. For more details see Dressing.

Conversation Topics

Be aware that there are cultural differences about what constitutes casual conversation. In some places, it is perfectly acceptable for someone to ask your age or income. Knowing what is appropriate and what to expect helps one avoid problems. Acceptable casual conversation topics vary from culture to culture. Discussing children or food is rude in some cultures. Because one circulates at social events in order to meet as many people as possible, conversations should be fairly brief.


Even something as simple as bringing a gift to the host can be tricky. Many rituals and customs often surround the meaning of gifts. The type, color and number of flowers you bring, for example, may have a hidden meaning. In Italy, mums are funeral flowers; think twice about bringing them to a dinner party. A guest may be expected to bring a small gift, or it may be better to bring nothing at all. Once again, asking colleagues and co-workers about local customs will be most helpful.

Eating and Drinking

To be polite, accept the food and drink that is offered. If unsure or a bit apprehensive, try a small portion. If you do not wish to drink alcohol, still take some to have in your glass for toasts. If you do drink, however, as a US representative, you should drink responsibly so as not to embarrass yourself or your country. If, for health or religious reasons, you absolutely cannot try even a small portion of a particular food or drink, it is acceptable to refuse with a short explanation. Consider new foods and drinks an opportunity to explore the new culture. Try them in good spirits and with an open mind.

Gender Issues

Gender roles vary from country to country, and sometimes even within regions of one country. For example, a husband may be expected to precede his wife in a receiving line, or men and women may go into separate rooms for dessert. Although men and women may drift away from each other and talk amongst themselves, the practice of actually separating men and women at any time during a dinner party is rare even in primarily gender-biased societies. Be aware that this may happen and when it does, it is best to go along with these traditions. Lacking a specific mission agenda, the diplomat's role is not to change host country customs. The country may not consider gender bias an issue that needs to be addressed.


When everyone is treated respectfully, only a few status issues merit special note. As mentioned earlier, stand when an ambassador and his/her spouse enter the room, and allow him/her to enter and exit a room first. When making introductions, introduce someone to the more distinguished or older person. In addition, reserve the far right-hand seat of a couch, as you sit, for the guest of honor.

Thank You

Rituals often surround thanking someone. Without exception, thank your host before you leave. Tradition determines how you should thank the host the day after the event. What, how and when to send gifts may be different depending on the customs of your post. In most cases, a hand-written note is sufficient, but to be seen as an appreciative guest, look into the customs of your new country.

Adapted from material published by the Overseas Briefing Center of the U.S. Department of State.
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