It is truly interesting to trace our everyday behaviors – many of which we don’t give a second thought – back to their origins.
The earliest record of social practices may be found in the 3rd millennium BC in the writings of the Egyptian writer Ptahhote. Then came Confucius and on to King Louis XIV.
While some of the customs from long ago have remained fixtures in our modern society, there are many that have faded into obscurity and for good reason.
We have uncovered the explanations behind some of today’s common customs that managed to stick around.
Shaking hands is a common greeting. But do you have any clue who started it or why we continue to do it?
Dating back to Ancient Greece this greeting was a sign of equality and mutual respect.
It replaced bows and curtsies, while also serving as proof that both parties came unarmed.
In medieval Europe, the handshake became a powerful symbol of the bond between husband and wife. It was the final gesture of wedding ceremonies.
Today the handshake still represents respect and is seen as a welcoming gesture.
We use it in business and social interactions, but not so much in marriages.
Here in the United States, when someone sneezes, “Bless you” will often be heard immediately after.
It’s almost as much of a reflex as sneezing itself.
It is a rather strange custom if you think about it. We don’t acknowledge any other bodily functions with such dignity.
So how did this response originate?
The Greeks and Romans viewed it as a sign of wellness – a means of expelling bad spirits from the body – and would routinely offer blessings unto the sneezer.
However, centuries later, widespread fears brought on by the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1330 cast suspicion on the sneeze.
Pope Gregory VII called on the people of Europe to utter a short prayer, “Bless you”, after every sneeze to protect against the sickness.
And there you have it!
“Don’t put your elbows on the table!”
The origin of this classic motherly adage dates back to medieval times. Feasts were held in great halls and hundreds of people would eat together at long wooden tables.
While the food was often plentiful, space was not.
Furthermore, when dining in the presence of the lords and ladies of the realm, it was deemed “peasant-like” to hunch over one’s plate, guarding the food from others.
The act gave off an aura of distrust, and has since become a commonly repeated rule.
After a toast, it is tradition to clink glasses with fellow diners.
This iconic act of celebration comes from a morbid past. It was started with the intention of spilling a little of the other person’s drink into your own to demonstrate that neither party had poisoned the other’s glass.
The clink was a sign of good will, a feeling that has endured to today.
How We Hold Our Utensils
As all of our ASP grads know, there is a stark difference in dining styles once you cross the Atlantic.
In the United States, a “Zig-Zag” method is used, while our European neighbors predominantly eat “Continental.”
It is surprising to learn that the traditional European method was in fact this American style.
The modern dining divide resulted when British colonists sailed across the Atlantic, bringing their multi-step cutting method to the New World.
The colonists retained this dining style, but back in Europe, the Industrial Revolution brought a faster pace of life that left little room for the niceties and courtesies of the previous era, leading to the more streamlined Continental style.
If you enjoyed reading about the history of etiquette, then be sure to check out this article from National Geographic How Table Manners as We Know Them Were a Renaissance Invention.
Traveling can be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences. If underprepared and unsure of the region’s customs, it can also be a very stressful time for you and annoying for those around you. Read on for how not to be mistaken for an "Ugly American".
•Before you decide to jet off to a country, do your research. Learn as much about the culture and people before you arrive. If you do not speak the language, learn a few key phrases and invest in a translation app or book.
•Money makes all trips possible. So before you make landfall, be sure you are aware of the currency used by the country you will be visiting. Typically, if you exchange your money before you arrive, you will be able to avoid a higher currency exchange fee. Banks offer this service for a small fee or even free.
•Traveling to a different country means long flights and little leg room. If you have been on a plane in the last decade, then you know that your personal space on a plane is decreasing as you read this.
•Airlines are trying to figure out how to add more passengers onto every flight, so it is really important to respect other’s space. Have your luggage neatly tucked away and leave as much room as possible for others. Just because you have someone sitting next to you, that does not mean that you have an open invitation to talk to them. Respect other’s privacy and make sure that if you are in a conversation that it’s mutual.
•When you arrive at your destination, most likely you will need a taxi to take you from point A to point B. If you encounter a reckless taxi driver and you feel unsafe, immediately ask the driver to pull over and let you out. Do not yell at the driver, but record the car number and get out safely. Once you are out, call the company and let them know about the awful experience.
•One of the greatest joys in traveling to new countries is the chance to take in the sites. Respect the fact that these sites hold an enormous historical and cultural value and should be left as you found them. Don’t carve your initials on anything or leave litter for someone else to pick up. When the museum says “No Pictures”, please obey and put your camera away.
•Dining out is definitely something that you will be doing. Know what the culture’s dining customs are and what times are set aside for lunch and dinner. Or is it called supper? What local cuisine should be a “must a try”?
•If you end up disrespecting the culture or their food, it is highly likely that you will be labeled as an “Ugly American”. If you want to learn more about dining styles abroad click here.
•If the menu is in a different language or you do not recognize certain dishes offered, then ask. It is ok to be unsure. When asked politely, most wait staff persons are so happy to help.
•Every country has a different policy in regards to tipping. Do yourself a favor and do research on the tipping customs and the percentage that is customary to that country.
•If you happen to run into some inconsiderate neighbors in your hotel, take the appropriate actions. If the problem escalates, call the manager on duty and have them resolve the problem or get you a new room. Avoid taking matters into your own hand, which usually intensifies the problem.
•It is also important to know about the government and laws. Not every country is a democracy and laws can vary drastically in different nations.
For years, we have been known as the "Ugly American.” It is an image that we, unfortunately, deserve. Please keep these tips in mind next time you travel and do your best to show kindness and consideration for all people you meet. Be a “Role Model American” not an "Ugly American".