The first time I visited England as a teenager, a teacher of mine warned me to be aware of certain customs, practices, and terms. Having attended Oxford University as a graduate student, he rattled off his laundry list, and I could barely keep up.
"Finally," he said, "never lift your index and middle finger together facing you, sort of in a reverse peace sign. That's the same as flipping someone the bird in the U.S."
That august tutorial, received at age 14, made me curious of mannerisms, phrases and most of all general protocols of other cultures. I started compiling them in my memory banks, and have been lucky enough during my 17 years overseas to make sense of some of them.
For example, on that first trip to England I learned right away that American English and British English have a variety of words and phrases that need deciphering or would initially make no sense to each other.
Some are easy to sort out, such as our current tendency to use the term "cell" for the phone in our pocket as opposed to the nearly universal international term of "mobile." Or calling an elevator a "lift." Or the pharmacist a "chemist." Or, I guess, even a doctor's office the "surgery."
But there are words that drift from any semblance of familiarity. A bathroom is a "loo." A police car is a "panda" (I get it, but come on!). An undershirt is a "vest." London's subway is "the Tube.
Other practices, such as punctuality and efficiency, seem to follow along ethnic-cultural lines, or as some on the Weather Channel might suggest, along cool-warm climate boundaries.
Anyone who has ever visited the Mediterranean knows what I'm talking about. It doesn't matter if you are in Southern Europe, North Africa, or Asia Minor. There's something about nice weather that causes everyone to hit the brakes when checking their watch.
I can't even being to describe how many Greek friends of mine back in the old country would say to meet somewhere at 3 p.m., and show up at 3:30 p.m. instead (this is actually considered "not bad a wait").
The same was true when I was in Milan as well as in Barcelona. And this wasn't just with buddies and dates. On a half dozen instances in Cairo and Tel-Aviv, when I had appointments to conduct official business, I had to wait an average of one hour for the administrator in question to show.
Basically, I learned it was O.K. to be late; most often, so was the other party.
But those were habits I couldn't take with me to Germany, Austria, the Netherlands or Demark.
There, even the slightest tardiness meant missing your appointment and insulting business partners. And when someone told you to catch the 2:45 p.m. train to Stuttgart with them, and you showed up at 2:46 p.m., they were already a mile away on that train - not hanging around for you to arrive for the 3:15.
Another widespread European futility is finding anyone in August. Northerners, who love whatever sunshine they can get, all head to the Mediterranean.
For their part, Mediterraneans all pour out of their cities to their rural ancestral roots, apparently to make room for the inbound Vikings and Huns. Hello? Is anyone home in late summer?
One final thing applies worldwide, and this includes when foreigners visit us here in the States: how to address people's names properly when greeting them.
During my Army years, I was tapped to escort several senior Korean Army officers through a simulation exercise at a stateside base. I prepared by learning the dignitaries' names from an advance roster.
However, I was not attuned to listing surnames first and given names second in what is a common, though not exclusive, Oriental practice. On reviewing final preparations with a public relations liaison, he quickly berated me: "You're going to make fools of all of us!"
Fortunately, the Korean generals wore bilingual nametags, so I made the adjustment and saved face - by a whisker.
Over the years, friends of mine have urged me to put this stuff in a book, but there have been many written on the subject, to include official diplomatic training manuals. Yet looking back, I can better appreciate my teacher's efforts at preparing me for culture shock, or keeping me from getting beat up while riding the Tube.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail: email@example.com. Twitter: @TellyHalkias.