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.
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 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.
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.