The last thing a foreign student need is to start a fight or lose the respect of their peers through some apparently harmless action. While people tend to be at least a little tolerant of foreigners’ strange ways, abusing this privilege too often or after you’ve been told about local customs, is asking for trouble.
Under no circumstances, it is a good idea to expect the rest of the world to adapt to you and follow those sophisticated, civilized patterns that seem normal to your perspective. Different cultures aren’t inherently worse or better than one another, so the “when in Rome” principle applies.
Do Your Research
Every country is different. In some places, questions such as your age, whether you’re married and how much money you have are simply a way for strangers to get to know one another. While other, more reserved cultures regard anything beyond your name as private information. In some languages, “How are you?” is nothing more than a greeting, while in others it will be taken as an expression of deep concern and may lead to a detailed explanation of someone’s history, desires, the state of health and family relationships.
Aside from avoiding insults (comparisons to animals don’t always translate well), things like maintaining the correct social distance between peers, people on a different level, friends and strangers require knowing a bit about the cultural norms. Stereotypes such as Germans being dour, French being rude and so forth are rarely true, but only the result of poor understanding.
Of course, knowing things like whether a handshake should be firm or loose and how table manners work doesn’t hurt at all. Taking or neglecting little actions such as these are bound to affect the way others perceive you, even if only subconsciously.
Numerous cultures defer to older people or at least acknowledge their experience and presumed wisdom. Not doing so will not only offend the person in question but make people your own age think of you as uncultured and boorish, even if they understand on some level that you don’t realize what you’re doing wrong.
On a related note, titles are extremely important in many parts of the world. Unless told that it’s unnecessary, saying “sir”, “doctor” or whatever is appropriate is unlikely to cost you any social points and may prevent a gaffe.
This should go without saying but is important enough to mention anyway. Different cultures have completely divergent views on issues such as gender roles, LGBT issues and even whether sex can be mentioned at all in casual conversation.
Talking Around the Subject
In several cultures, saying “no” outright is considered almost anti-social. This skill – whether talking or listening – can take a while to learn, but it is necessary if you don’t want to come across as a total barbarian. Instead of saying you won’t be able to come to an event, talk about your busy schedule or say “we’ll see”, and don’t press someone into a corner where a yes/no answer is required. In this case, he will probably feel better about lying and disappointing you later than actually using the words “I won’t.”
For some reason, alcohol consumption and notions of proper social behavior are closely linked. In some countries, toasting a person older than you is considered disrespectful. In others, you’re not allowed to fill your own glass. In still others, empty bottles are placed on the floor rather than the table. As a student, some partying may well happen at some point, so read up or ask before you go out.
Starting out in a foreign country can be tough, and making a faux pas as people are still getting to know you can make it that much tougher to overcome the initial isolation. In general, though, learning the basics, being friendly and imitating what others are doing will be all that’s needed to ensure smooth sailing.