SPRINGFIELD — Henrik Eger had been living in Iran for a short time when he learned the accepted routine for getting rid of an unwanted guest.
"You'd invite him to lunch," Eger said.
It was like a game, his Iranian friends assured him. The individual who no longer wanted company simply had to extend the invitation, and the visitor would take the hint and graciously leave.
So when accosted in a marketplace one day by a friendly fellow he could not shake, Eger decided to try out the advice. He invited the man to lunch.
And the man accepted.
"I paid for lunch," Eger said, "and of course I had to pay for the taxi as well."
Occasionally travel tips backfire, said Eger, an assistant professor of English at Delaware County Community College who gave a workshop on international communication at Borders Book Shop in Springfield Tuesday. But it never hurts to be culturally literate when traveling abroad.
Most Americans who embark on overseas trips are not forewarned that their behavior, even their body language and facial expressions, can be offensive to people in their host country, Eger told the group of about 40. For instance, the openness and familiarity toward strangers that is common to many Americans is a no-no in many places - Japan, for one.
In Japan, a respectable physical distance must be kept when standing near someone, Eger said. And lots of smiling and small talk are taboo.
"Americans find it very difficult to sit in silence," Eger said, but to the Japanese, silence is nurturing. That's why, when exchanging business cards in Japan, an American should examine the card thoughtfully, without speaking, for at least two minutes, and never write on the back of it.
Scribbling on a Japanese business card is the equivalent of "tattooing the person's flesh," Eger said.
Another tip for travelers to Japan, he said, is to never blow your nose in public. Such a gauche act can cause great embarrassment.
Born in Germany, Eger was left fatherless when his war-correspondent father was killed near the end of World War II. He was expelled from school at 13 for failing to master English, but took night classes and finally passed the exit exam for high school. He developed a taste for travel after he spent some time in England.
After he earned a bachelor's and master's degree, he traveled in the United States, met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and ended up translating some of the mail Dr. King received from abroad after he won the Nobel Prize. He later earned another bachelor's degree, two more master's degrees and a doctorate, and soon found himself teaching and traveling around the globe. In 1978, he taught at a university in Iran, where he learned "just how different another culture could be," Eger said.
For instance, many Iranian homes are short on furniture, but well-outfitted with beautiful carpets, which are not to be stepped on. "It would be like walking on a Rembrandt," he said.
Invited to a camel farm for a party one evening, Eger dared not insult his guest by refusing the opium pipe, so he indulged - "There goes the presidency," he joked - but he coughed so much that the drug had little effect.
Eger gave some additional traveling tips: When in India, shake the head
from side to side rather than up and down to indicate an affirmative answer; in Greece, shove to the front of the line at the bank or bus stop rather than standing politely; in France, take the hands out of the pockets when conversing.
In Africa, hitchhike by slapping the outer thigh, not by sticking out the thumb. The latter, Eger said, is considered obscene. The "OK" sign common in the United States is also obscene in some places.
He also had advice for travelers to his native country: Do not ask for a glass of water because no one drinks tap water. Germans drink bottled water and will respond by asking which brand you would prefer, he said.