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One of the greatest cultural misunderstandings between tourists and locals is who should speak to whom first.

Islanders normally are very polite people and expect to be treated with courtesy. They like to be spoken to when you pass them, even if it's just a nod.

They often expect visitors to initiate any conversation or the passing "hello." Considering that many visitors come from big cities where residents are afraid to make eye contact, this type of old-fashioned island politeness is a foreign way of behavior.   

Consider this scenario. You may walk to a hotel desk and no one seems to pay attention to you. As the paying guest you feel frustrated because you're being ignored. In your country, the customer normally receives preferential treatment.

Before long, you get so irritated that the first words popping out of your mouth tend to be less friendly than they could be. The desk clerk responds in the same less-than-friendly way that you greeted him/her. Words and conduct on both sides may escalate from there.

Now, from the West Indian point of view, you the visitor have been rude throughout: First by not initiating the conversation and acknowledging the desk clerk. Then you lost your temper and finally started the conversation in a hostile manner.

Hotels are training their staffs in the quirks of tourists: That strangers visiting the Caribbean expect islanders, whose home it is, to speak first. It will be decades before that trait is fully instilled.

The easiest approach on any island is to always speak first, as politely as you would converse with a colleague at work, and say it with a smile. It's almost always returned.

I had this who-should-speak-first pattern explained to me in Antigua . Once I discovered the proper protocol, I was amazed at how much friendlier everyone all over the Caribbean suddenly became.

They hadn't changed. I had.

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