When I first heard that George W. Bush had not one but two shoes thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist in Baghdad, I laughed quite heartily. That was before I realized the gravity of insults involving footwear in Middle Eastern countries. (Then I was still laughing, but with a bit of wide-eyed astonishment.)
In an increasingly globalized world, there seem to be more opportunities for gestures and intentions to be lost in translation. Every culture has its taboos and totems, but foreigners are not always informed of the norm. What’s considered an insult in one country may be the greatest praise in another. Like the attitude toward shoes (and shoe throwing), the giving and accepting of compliments is culture-specific and can be confusing.
Asia and Persia
In most Asian cultures, the group is valued over the individual and compliments are meted out with discretion. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that compliments rarely begin with the phrases “I like” or “I love.” Compliments are made on performance and ability (“How well you speak Japanese!”) rather than appearance (“You have a nice smile”). Still, flattered persons beware! Humility is a virtue in countries like China, Japan, and Korea, and to accept a compliment is to place yourself above the group. Much better to reject or deflect the compliment back on the person who gave it to you, putting everyone on the same level. A similar situation occurs in Iran, where shekasteh-nafsi  (modesty or self-effacement) is an important part of the social and religious fabric.
You wouldn’t ask for the shirt off a stranger’s back in America, but in parts of West Africa, asking for something shows you admire it, and such a comment might make someone’s day. You also probably wouldn’t ask a friend if she’s gained weight (unless you’re looking to turn her into an enemy), but in an area of the world where food is often scarce, carrying some extra poundage implies health, wealth, fertility, and is considered one of the greatest compliments.
The Middle East
In the Middle East and Southeast Asia, if you want something, simply compliment it. Before I knew about this culturally ingrained reaction to compliments, I repeatedly found myself sent home with unnecessary gifts from an Afghan refugee my family helped to resettle in Virginia. Being the nice Southern girl that I am, I’d politely comment on a new porcelain clown figurine she had in her living room or a gold locket she wore, only to have it pressed into my palm as I left, slightly confused as to what had just happened.
The Mediterranean and Latin America
If you’re a woman who’s walked the streets of Rome, Athens, or Buenos Aires, you know that some Latin and Mediterranean men are, shall we say, outspoken in their admiration of women. Attribute it to machismo, but in these cultures, where blood supposedly runs as hot as the climate, throwing pick-up lines, making kissy noises, clicking, or even hissing at a woman is considered a compliment (piropo, in Spanish) on a woman’s beauty or sexual desirability. In fact for some women, not to receive such come-ons is considered an insult.
Americans have a curious habit of what foreigners might consider backhanded compliment giving. If Jack tells Pierre he sang beautifully today, Jacques might wonder what the heck he sounds like on other days. Tell a Luxembourgian those pants make her bum look fabulous, and she may infer that the rest of her closet makes her tushie look terrible. In any event, foreigners may find the American habit of positive reinforcement effusive and disingenuous.
Of course, not everyone from every culture acts the same way and as our world becomes more globalized, traditional customs are changing and adapting. But as with any compliment, even cross-cultural, it’s the thought that counts. If you know your admirer means well, it may be best to grin and bear it, even if it means catcalls or glorification of your love handles. When in doubt, just nod and smile—it’s the international language for “I have no idea what you’re saying.”