I've been living in Austria since 2007 and after learning German and successfully (more or less) integrating into the Austrian way of life, I thought that I'd made all of the culture clash blunders one could make as an American living in Vienna. Last night, however, I surprised even myself. While lounging around the apartment yesterday evening, someone rang our (my fiance's and my) doorbell. It was a rather odd time of the night to be receiving visitors, but I thought my older neighbor across the hall might need something. That or my apartment found itself at the end of the Jehovah's Witnesses route for that day. Open the door to find out we have three lovely new neighbors who are sharing an apartment together and they brought by a plate of muffins and small cakes. This is something I've never heard of in Austria and the Viennese in me first thought, "Who are these weirdos?" (I know, I've gone to the dark side - there's no hope for me) but they were three delightful students that had just moved in and wanted to introduce themselves to the rest of the building.
Now in the USA, whenever someone shows up at your door with a plate of baked goods, they usually intend on giving you the entire plate. What was my reaction? You betcha - I thanked them and took the entire plate and set it on my bureau inside my little entry room. My girlfriend immediately snatched the plate back and gave it to them and told me that in Austria, you don't take the entire plate! Sorry! Didn't know! Thankfully they laughed at the whole situation and my American-ness and my embarrassment and apologies. So my fiance and I each took a piece of what was on the plate, welcomed them to the building and wished them well. I do hope that I get to see them again since they really were wonderful people.
I filed this under "Business", though, because this was just another reminder that when dealing with different cultures, there's always the potential to make some error in social protocol. In this case, it was harmless and meant nothing, but that doesn't always have to be the case. An incorrect gesture or act that is perfectly normal in one's home country could be received as extremely rude behavior or even truly insulting. It helps to read about a foreign country before visiting it so as to have a good idea what you might encounter and what will be expected of you.
To that end, there is a database called globalEDGE from Michigan State University's Broad College of Business that puts together a wonderful summary of most countries that I recently found and is an absolute fountain of knowledge. Certainly worth consulting before visiting a foreign country in order to learn the habits and customs of its inhabitants so as not to make a fool of yourself. I think I'll be taking a look at Austria's so as to hopefully prevent any further goof-ups.
PS - The photo attached is one I made from inside Cafe Hawelka, a very traditional Viennese cafe.
PPS - It's nice to see that many Austrians have commented oN Twitter, here and on reddit that they would have reacted the same in my position. That makes me feel much better. :)