My favorite habits from around the world


I want to learn how to sneeze like I'm in Japan, travel like I'm from Australia, and dance like I'm in Colombia.

I've lived in six countries and traveled to more than 20, and wherever I go, I've experienced cultural norms that I would love to bring back to America. In the United States, I've found myself wishing I could eat like the Chinese, or take vacation time like a European. This got me thinking, if I were an eccentric billionaire and could own my own island in the Pacific Ocean, what would be my perfect combination of cultural norms?

In my perfect society, I would:

Portion food like they do in Japan.

My dad served four years as a diplomat in Japan while I was in high school, and when my family and I visited the U.S. during summer breaks, we got in the habit of ordering two plates for four people — compared to Japanese portion sizes, one American plate per person was just way too much food. (The CDC happens to agree with this.)

During my time in Japan, I picked up an eating philosophy that I retain to this day: Stop eating when you are 80% full. In my ideal society, like in my experiences in Japan, plates would be smaller, but you would still walk away satisfied.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

Use Japanese toilet seats.

Speaking of Japan, I really don't understand why Americans in the northern half of the country don't go for heated toilet seats. Say what you will about complicated Japanese toilets, but heated toilet seats in the winter are a gift from the heavens.

Yoshikazu Tsuno/Getty Images

Hold our plates like we're in China.

Rather than sitting upright and bringing the fork on a dangerous and time-wasting 10-inch journey from plate to mouth, many people in China pick up their bowls and put them right in front of their faces while they eat. I love this way of eating and I think we'd all be better off if we felt comfortable picking up our bowls and holding them up while we eat.

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Sneeze like they do in Japan

In Japan, no one automatically replies to you when you sneeze like we do in the United States. Blessing someone for sneezing is a habit that may have started during the bubonic plague years ago in Europe, when sneezing was an early warning sign of the plague. Considering we're centuries removed from this threat, I think it's safe to stop blessing people and just accept, as the Japanese do, that people sneeze sometimes and you don't have to say anything when they do.

Dance like they do in Colombia

Many of the dance floors I've seen in Latin America put my American dance experiences to shame. I felt this the most distinctly in Cartagena, Colombia, where there was salsa music leaking out of every other doorway and I saw people casually dancing in the streets outside of bars and cafes. Even my stiff, uncoordinated hips couldn't help but sway a little as I walked through the walled city.

Fernando Vergara/AP

Throw a party like they do in Chile

At a wedding in Chile recently, I was up dancing until 4:30 in the morning —and when I left, the happy couple still hadn't cut the cake. The wedding ceremony hadn't even started until 10:00 p.m., and we ate our main course at about 1:00 a.m. 

This scheduling is a little late for my taste, but I also don't like the midnight curfews I've seen imposed by many wedding venues in the United States. Something I learned in Chile is that a wedding reception-turned-dance party is not meant to get cut off at midnight.

Take time off like they do in Germany

The United States has a grueling work culture that often encourages unnecessarily long working hours and few vacation days. In 2015, Americans used an average of 16.2 vacation days per year and 55% of workers didn't take all of their paid leave days. 

Germans, meanwhile, have been found to be more productive, despite working far fewer hours per year and taking about twice as much vacation as Americans. And research shows that people who take fewer vacation days are actually less likely to get promoted. So don't be a martyr — be a German.

Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Travel like an Australian

Throughout my travels, I often run into Australians around my age who are on the road for an extended trip — three months, six months, a year. Whenever I ask if they are worried about having a "gap in their resume," they give me a weird look, clearly confused. But in the U.S., many people are reluctant to take time off from work.

American employers and employees alike seem to worry too much that extended travel is a career-damaging "gap," rather than an experience that makes you arguably more qualified for many jobs, in that you become more worldly, better at problem solving and better under pressure.

So If I somehow wind up with the millions I need to fund my dream island, you're all invited to come eat like you're Chinese, party like you're at a Chilean wedding and sit on heated toilets. Until then, I encourage you to get out there and learn about the cultural norms in other places that you might just learn you love.