Continental etiquette and specifically European manners can be a major conundrum for American visitors, something which is avoidable with some practice and prior reading up. In the USA, our informal bonhomie may be perceived to be well-mannered but that is not the same around the world. Whether on your first visit, or as a frequent traveler, some essential tips help avoid the ‘Arrogant American Tourist’ branding, in Europe.
1. ‘Library voice’
Whether in public places or in informal discussions with people, you need to drastically reduce your volume. In America, people talk rather animatedly and very loudly, and their voices echo clearly in the museums, cathedrals, and restaurants of Europe. Pause and listen to any conversation between some Britishers. Evaluate mentally their volume/tenor on a sound scale of 1 to 10. Then evaluate some Americans talking. You need not be close-by to hear every spoken word of that conversation. The liberal use of the library voice and not the gym voice really helps.
2. Social niceties are important
Americans have a tendency to barge into any conversation, even if it is with a stranger, which is frowned upon in France with- “Hey, where are the restrooms at?”. A Parisian would politely say “Excusez-moi..” or some kind of “sorry to bother you” or “excuse me” before asking for the lavatories. Take the cue.
3. Greet shopkeepers cordially when entering or exiting a store
Not acknowledging them is very rude and a greeting helps in starting a conversation. A chatty shopkeeper could help you discover local delights (the best ice cream nearby) and it usually is great fun! You may find upon return home that it is a great habit to continue.
4. Treat all servers as professionals
The laundry list of instructions may differ as you travel from one country to another. One thing that is common; you must treat your servers as respected professionals and never ever make rude gestures, snap your fingers to call their attention, or treat them as subordinate people, anywhere.
5. Never ask for doggie bags or substitutions. Also, you need to ask for the check
In most countries when you order food, never depart away from the menu. A posh Parisian restaurant will not have ranch dressing or substitute the chef’s vegetable choices. Substitutions may be acceptable in Italy, if politely requested. Never ask for a carry-away or doggie bag except if you are a valued customer. You must request for a bill as they consider it rude to offer it to you as if they are rushing you. Do take note that in Italy, even if you dine in the best restaurants, payment at the front desk is mandatory, as the staff would not wish to bother you.
6. Never overtip
Big tips are just wasteful and not the norm here. Smaller tips are appreciated in restaurants if it helps to round up the bill. A 100 euros payment for a 98 euro bill is very much the norm.
7. Do not touch produce when in a Market
When we shop back home in the US, we touch, pick up, prod and poke fruits and veggies at leisure, to ensure their quality before buying them. Try doing this at your own personal risk at any European market. Should you handle something before purchasing fruits or vegetables, grocers in Italy would expect you to wear a plastic glove, and hand you one.
8. Allow people to exit trains before entering
In Europe, always do as the Europeans do: Let people exit first from buses, trains, and trams before you enter. Another tip for metros is to remain on one side of the escalator (usually the right side) if you are not in a hurry to climb. This helps those in a hurry to climb up faster.
9. Never presume that everyone speaks English
Always learn a few common phrases prior to your trip such as: Please, May I have, Thank you, Excuse me, I am sorry, You are welcome, Where are the washrooms, and Do you speak English?
If they say no and at times, actually do, they are not poking fun at you. Nobody would intentionally want to look bad and not help a tourist. Even if they have amazing language skills, they might still be self-conscious and think that their English is inadequate. Compliment those who do and thank them for communicating with you in English.
10. Make efforts to pay the right change
Breaking a 50 or even a 5 euro bill for chewing gum or a bottle of water is sure to ensure grumbles, and shopkeepers may even refuse to give you change and deny selling you anything. Always carry change!