Vlaggen van diverse Europese landen waaronder Duitsland, Italië

014. Habits you pick up when working abroad

Diplomats travel. So do other people of course, but in general we diplomats do this travelling a bit more than the average person. When one travels, one experiences and learns. I did for sure. One can also have silly competitions, as I have with a few friends. “Who visits most countries in his life?”. A typical male thing as women, who are in general (but not always) more sensible, do not have this sort of competitions. Well, we men do and recently I crossed the 100 countries mark.

All this traveling brings me a lot: friends, new experiences and the conviction that people share the same basic feelings and wishes. As a diplomat I have already been posted in 7 countries. Looking back at these I realize that each country influenced me as every diplomatic posting is not only tens of picture books and thousands of memories, but also additional behavioral acts.

From Russia I took with me that one never, never shakes hands across the doorstep. So when your Russian friend opens the door for you, do not extend your hand to him in order to shake his hand. And when I say never, I really mean never. Your Russian friend will pull you inside his house, very close to him and only then will he do the hand shaking. The only alternative is that he will step outside to do the handshaking outside his house. In short, handshake across a doorstep is not done in Russia. Another thing one should stay away from doing in Russia is crossing arms while four people are shaking hands. This brings also extreme bad luck.

My years in China (Hong Kong) taught me many new things. I became aware how fast the world is really changing and that the main challenge for a country like the Netherlands is whether it quickly enough adapts to all the changes.

After China I always have my business cards with me and tend to give them to everyone, my neighboring simitci (seller of simit bread) included. After less than a year in Turkey I already opened my fourth batch of 1000 business cards. I also never give business cards anymore with one hand only. Always with two hands, including the credit card at the supermarket. Another habit I have adopted is lowering your glass while toasting so that your glass is a fraction lower than the glass of the other person, which is a sign of respect. This can turn into a competition as well if the other one tries to do the same.

And now, after 11 months in Turkey, what have I already taken from this most hospitable of all countries? One thing for sure and this is, as often in diplomatic life, related to respect. My first Turkish habit I acquired is accompanying my guest, when he or she leaves, all the way to the exit. I am sure that in the coming years I will incorporate more Turkish characteristics, but this one I already like.

So do we change, by all that traveling? Personally I think so, but most changes are very gradual, making you more of a world citizen, more understanding, less quick in your judgment. But change is most visible in these small, but significant acts. Like the toasting, the shaking of hands, the not crossing of arms, presenting your credit card or, as in Turkey, by walking with your guest all the way till the exit. And only then waive goodbye.

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