Depending on whom you ask, there are between 189 and 196 independent countries in the world. While they may share similarities, each has developed a unique culture with customs and pleasantries unlike anything else in the world. Just think of how many differences there are just between the states in the United States. Could you possibly confuse a Brooklynite with someone from Mobile? Adjust that paradigm to the whole world and you get an idea of how complex humanity has become.
Some customs develop because of the war history of a nation, or the style of a king from centuries ago. Other cultures develop customs based on superstitions, or legends, or the intersection of multiple religions. For example, The Netherlands has a lot of customs that owe to the influx of Jews several centuries ago, and Thailand has customs owing to its former status as a French colony. Even the United States has legacies of our colonial time, with the inheritance of British Common Law forming the basis of our system of jurisprudence.
So how well do you know the world? When you visit a country, do you bother to dig into the local customs, so you can know what it is like to be a local, or do you just take selfies and hop on the next leg of your trip? Could you identify these nations from one cultural fact?
Greece was the cradle of western civilization, giving the world some of its greatest philosophers, some of its earliest scientists and of course, democracy.
There was a real Romanian prince who brutally fought the Turks when they invaded, but that man has been transformed into the Count Dracula of popular culture.
The British love their drop tops, because when the sun comes out, they want to make the most of it.
Egypt's main claim to fame is its history as the seat of the pharaohs, men and women who controlled a vast empire, with the Nile as its backbone.
It's not clear why this is the case, but in 2008, the Beijing authorities tried to curb the nose blowing to make Olympic visitors more at ease.
Holland is very flat, and its people, the Dutch, like to ride bicycles to get around. In fact, they are so popular, there is an informal bike-sharing culture in many of its major cities.
In Denmark, people expect everyone to learn and respect social norms. If you break the rules, you'll be told about it and expect to adjust your behavior. One of those rules is that when you're a party guest, you should send flowers ahead of your arrival.
Israel has done an excellent job in irrigation, and perhaps that is the reason they don't mind having water go everywhere when you take a shower. Perhaps there were safety concerns about the use of shower curtains. Either way, showers are usually just a head coming out of the wall, with no little tub under it, and water goes everywhere.
In Puerto Rico, pointing with your finger is fine, but pursing your lips and sort of "kissing" in the direction you're pointing in is also acceptable.
It's an old superstition in Russia that talking through the doorway of a home is bad luck, so that has evolved into a mostly unspoken cultural norm that you either exit your home to talk, or invite the visitor in immediately.
In the Philippines, the native language is Tagalog, and in that language the size of a thing can be conveyed by the pitch of your voice. A small thing would have a high pitch, and a large thing a low pitch.
Among its many unique Christmas traditions, in Austria it is normal to open Christmas presents on Christmas Eve.
Italy is a country that doesn't brook zealous rule-following. As the ancestral homeland of the sports car, they love their native cars. Many visitors lucky enough to drive a Ferrari or a Lamborghini report being pulled over so the police can admire their car, and then tell them to drive faster.
Spain has two major languages: Spanish and Catalan. Catalonia, the region including Barcelona, has been making noises about going independent for years, but now they've been holding referendums, and it may come to pass someday soon.
There is an office in the French government that creates French words for things that appear in other languages, most notably English. This is to protect the cultural integrity of the French language, so it doesn't fall into disuse as it becomes corrupted with lots of English words for things like "online" and "cellphone".
Ireland was hit hard by the eruption of Mount Tambora, which caused 1816 to become the Year Without a Summer. There was a famine (before the famous potato famine) and people huddled together in their homes, spreading disease like wildfire. Thus, the government stepped in and developed the first national health service in the world.
Yes! In the United States, greetings usually involve a handshake and some variation on "What's up?"
Bedouin nomads in the Middle East, as in Saudi Arabia, will always show hospitality to a friendly stranger, but they have subtle ways of saying they'd like you to leave, because they cannot actually ask you to leave. That wouldn't be friendly.
Poland recently passed a law making it illegal to call any of the Nazi-built concentration camps in Poland as "Polish Concentration Camps" but also made it a crime to claim anyone in Poland took part in The Holocaust or aided the Nazis at all.
Australians have a kind of streamlined pickup truck called a ute, which is basically just a muscle car with a bed in the back. These weird, wonderful trucks never seem to make it across the Pacific to the US, but then that makes sense. Australia is halfway around the world.
Canada is often lauded for its relative liberalism, and perhaps a lot of that is because much of the population live in cities, where pluralism and diversity are a fact of life, and liberalism can flourish more easily.
The victory on May 5th, 1862 is the basis for the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo! A French defeat that leads to a fun party? Who can complain about that? Other than the French?
Due to a fresh water shortage in Bermuda, it is normal to flush number 2s, but leave number 1s to sit until the end of the night, when you flush the toilet so it's fresh for the next day.
In Thailand, showing someone the soles of your feet is somewhere between giving them the finger, and mooning them. Don't do it!
While slapping someone or something with your shoe could be considered rude just about anywhere, it is considered particularly egregious in Iraq, where one manufacturer made shoes with images of George Bush on the sole as a very specific insult.
Finland's roads are awful, gravel-strewn messes. Their driving test involves many advanced driving skills, like getting out of a skid, and a move called The Scandinavian Flick. As a result, many of the greatest race car drivers come from Finland.
Tax haven the Isle of Man has a long history, going back to the stone age. The island is home to many standing stones, and it is believed these stones are favored by faeries. When people drive past, they say hello, and god forbid you try to move one.
When the Lord of the Rings films were under way in New Zealand, the script called for dozens of men on horseback. There were literally not enough men in New Zealand who could ride, but there were plenty of women who rode horses. As a result, the producers put fake beards on the women, dressed them as men, and filmed battles with dozens of warrior women.
Turkey controls land both on the European continent and the Asian continent, with the Bosporus running in between.
India is a very populous nation, and everyone needs a job. As a result, there are certain jobs there that come as a bit of a shock to westerners. One of those jobs is that of vending machine attendant; usually men who stand in front of vending machines, and operate them for you.
Zambia is home to over 100,000 Asians, mostly from China and India, and many European expats. The nation is known for being welcoming, and benefits from its visitors and new residents.
Belarus is often confused for a part of Russia, and while Russian is often spoken there, the national tongue is Belarusian, which uses a Latin-based script they call Lacinka.
Mauritania has a coup in 2005, followed by the creation of a new constitution, but that didn't stick, so there was another coup in 2008, and the leader of the 2005 coup was elected president in 2009.
Burundi is Rwanda's equally small next door neighbor, and like Rwanda, it is very densely populated, but not quite as much.
In feudal Japan, smacking scabbards was considered reason to fight to the death. Thus, by putting people and horses on the left side of the road, this problem could be mostly averted. This custom continues to this day, but without the swords.