What etiquette should new visitors to Japan be aware of that makes us better tourists?

The interviewer’s question was a good one. As I tried to craft my answer, I realized I’d been pushed to adapt to many different locales throughout my life, even within the U.S. I admired the interviewer’s desire to travel respectfully. For me, trying to read the social cues and behave accordingly is what is most important. It’s not always comfortable, though.

Let’s start with learning to behave in the South of my childhood.

Because my family traveled a lot when I was young, our parents constantly reminded us to mind our manners. And, not just when traveling abroad. We frequently visited relatives in West Virginia or had Sunday dinner in the homes of churchgoers in other towns and cities when we accompanied our father on his preaching trips.

Observing good Southern manners was sometimes just as mysterious as figuring out what to do in other countries. For example, never take the last piece of fried chicken, even when it’s offered. Eat everything on your plate, even if it turns your stomach. Don’t brag on yourself. Don’t push yourself forward. Always say yes ma’am, and no elbows on the table.

And that’s just for starters. There are also the unspoken codes that everyone knows but never tells you.

New York city street crosswalk

New York, I was to find when I moved there for graduate school, had its own unspoken codes. I tried to read the signals and behave accordingly.

Instead of smiling at everyone as I walked to the subway, I had to learn to set my face in a stony expression. Don’t meander, charge straight ahead.

Once, after I’d just arrived, and tried to register for classes at Columbia University, my boyfriend (and future husband), Dennis, caught me waiting at the end of a long line.

“What line is this?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I was told to come over here to register.”

“So you’re just standing in line and you have no idea?”

“I’ll find out when I get to the front,” I pleaded with him with my eyes not to make a scene. I didn’t mind waiting on line forever, if it meant I could go unnoticed. (And I’d already discovered that you stand “on” line and not “in” line. I was learning.)

Here I had just arrived. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Not anymore than I already had. I felt so self-conscious, as if my “Southern-ness” was obvious for all to see. When I looked around me, no one else was talking to anyone or even looking at anyone. These people were the true masters of the stony expression, and I was taking notes.

But, Dennis would have none of it. He asked the person in front of us who shrugged and said it was for finances or something. Then he walked boldly to the window at the head of the line, stepping right in front of the person who was standing there, and leaned in to ask a question. I bet he didn’t use any “I’m so sorry to trouble you” type lines either. He just butted right in!

He returned to me rolling his eyes and pulled me over to another window.

“This is the line you want.”

Dennis was from Pennsylvania. He had relatives in Brooklyn. He spoke New York.

I had to learn to push myself forward, to speak out of turn, to brag, and to ask for what hadn’t been offered. I needed a whole new set of rules.

And New York wasn’t the end of my adaptive mode. Pennsylvania had its own rules.

Specifically, I also had to learn to kiss random relatives.

It was the most uncomfortable of all lessons. Still, another culture it was, and I had learned that adapting was what a good traveler did. So, I puckered up.

Dennis’ family kissed hello and goodbye. All of them. All the time.

Not an air kiss, an actual smooch.

Each time I visited Dennis’ family, I walked a gauntlet of kissing: mother, father, sister, brother, sister-in-law, aunt, uncle, cousins, and so on. Only the littlest of children were spared.

I’m not opposed to all that kissing. It just wasn’t something I was used to, as my family was more apt to hug than kiss. I had to learn to get the movement just right or it was awkward. Swoop in, touch the elbow, peck the cheek, pull back.

Once my timing was off and I gave Dennis’ mother a lip-to-lip smack. She hadn’t expected it and didn’t seem pleased.

Trying to avoid the same mistake, the next time I turned my head too far in offering my cheek and gave her a mouthful of hair instead. Not a happy moment either.

All this made me appreciate even more the Japanese greeting of a no-contact bow. Not that it doesn’t have its own rules, of course—you have to know when to bow deeply and how long to hold the bow.

I got so accustomed to bowing in Japan, I even bowed when making phone calls!

Of course, there are lots of tips for being a better tourist in Japan. Mostly, the same rule applies when traveling anywhere. Watch what others do and follow suit. No matter how careful you are, you’re going to make a mistake. It’s inevitable. Be humble. Mistakes are almost always mitigated by a respectful attitude.

Oh, and in Japan don’t kiss anyone in public. But feel free to ask where the right line is.