Traveling offers up some incredible experiences and the last thing you want to do is inadvertently scandalize your host country with easily avoidable behavior.
There are so many habits or gestures we use every day and take for granted that the rest of the world uses them too.
Not only do they NOT use them but in some countries they can actually represent the opposite of what we intended. Meaning, what you might think is a gesture for someone to have a great day, could actually mean you’ve told them to go and do something very rude…
It’s always a good idea to read up on cultural etiquette before arriving in a new country. To get you started however, here are 10 potential travel faux-pas’ and where you definitely should avoid using them.
Tipping is a big deal in many countries. Whatever your views are on it, when you’re traveling you need to respect the culture of the company you’re in.
This might seem easy enough. If you live in the states you’ll be well used to tipping at this point. But what about the countries where this could be an issue?
In Japan and South Korea tipping can often be seen as an insult. Good service is expected and often staff members are trained to turn down any offered tips. This is changing somewhat in tourist related industries but you should never offer a tip directly. For the places that do accept tips, the custom is to put the money in an envelope and leave to one side.
2. Giving the Thumbs Up
In a lot of countries, especially in the Middle East, Australia, Latin America, Western Africa, Russia, and Greece, a thumbs-up basically has the same meaning as holding up a middle finger does for Americans.
If you give someone a thumbs up in any of these countries, what you think is a friendly gesture is actually body language for “Up yours!” or *ahem* “Sit on this!”.
In fact, so many hand signals have different meanings in other countries that you’re probably better off keeping your hands to yourself!
For example, the OK sign depicts a private bodily orifice in some countries. The ‘V for Victory’ sign can also mean ‘Up yours!” in some countries when the palm faces towards you.
Finally, pointing with your finger is also highly rude in some countries, so you might want to get into the habit of gesturing with your hand or simply looking in that direction.
3. Using Your Left Hand
This is going to be a tough one for most people to understand, given the luxuries we’re used to in our everyday lives. But, not all cultures use the bathroom in the same way as us and the left hand is designated to take care of personal hygiene. Even some countries that have moved on from this still remember what the left hand represents…
Due to this, accepting gifts, eating, shaking hands, or pretty much any action with your left hand in various regions of Africa, India, Sri Lanka and the Middle East is going to lead to some pretty disgusted looks.
This can be particularly difficult for lefties, so get some practice in before you set off on your travels. When asked what left-handed people should do the typical response seems to be; “learn to use their right hand.”
4. Tearing Open Your Presents
This is a tough one. We’re used to receiving presents here and enthusiastically ripping open the packaging immediately to see what lies within. However, in almost all Asian countries, particularly China and India, diving straight into a present in front of the giver is considered greedy.
Remember, these countries are a lot more reserved, so if you’re lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a gift while in these countries, simply thank the person and wait to open it until later. If the person would like you to open it there and then they’ll encourage you so don’t worry.
If not, you’re just going to have to control yourself and tear it open as soon as you get back to the hotel room!
On top of this, many countries expect you to refuse a gift on the first go, maybe even several times, before finally accepting. This is an odd test of restraint but shows your humility.
5. Showing the soles of your feet
In many Arab, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist countries, one of the biggest signs of disrespect is showing the soles of your feet. This is because they are considered the lowest and dirtiest parts of the body.
You might have seen videos of certain shoe-throwing incidents in some of these countries. This ties in with that disrespect and for the person to do so, must mean that they are pretty upset!
Be careful crossing your legs or lying out in the sun, as these will be the times that you’re most in danger of exposing yourself. (Well the soles of your feet anyway…)
6. Eating On The Go
In Japan particularly, it’s considered rude to eat while you’re on the go. The thinking here is that eating is a sacred activity and you should never be so busy that you can’t sit for a few minutes while eating.
On top of this, the incredible food in Japan is pretty hard to eat when you’re out and about. But, even if you’re tempted to tuck into a banana while on the move, you’re still going to come across as rude, or at the very least, people will think you’re a weirdo.
If you’re out on a hike, take some time to sit off to the side before tucking into your power bar. Not only is it good etiquette here, it’s also better for your digestion too.
Also, don’t stab food with your chopsticks or leave them standing straight up in your food. The first looks quite vicious and the second is representative of someone’s passing. Both good to skip.
7. Being Too Touchy-Feely
In many countries, public displays of affection are frowned upon. However, you might notice that in some countries they can actually be quite touchy when they’re speaking to you. Particularly in middle-eastern countries like Jordan or Lebanon, or most South-American countries.
However, the reverse is true in most Asian countries, particularly China. Don’t slap anyone on the back, try to put your arms around anyones shoulder, or go in for a hug. This will make them very uncomfortable as touching strangers is not something that’s done.
That all changes when you befriend someone but it’s best to keep to your own boundaries in the meantime. The stark differences between countries can take some getting used to.
8. The Battle of Food
In a lot of western cultures, clearing one’s plate is the highest compliment you can pay to the host. However, in most Arab countries, like Lebanon, and a lot of Asian cultures, they will take it as a sign that you’re still hungry.
This can lead to a cycle of both parties trying to make the other happier. If you’re going to make it out alive you need to leave your western values at the door. Eat slowly, so that if your plate is topped up you won’t burst trying to finish it all. When you’ve eaten your fill, make sure that you leave some food on your plate.
In many cultures this is seen as a show of prosperity. Then sit back and make sure to express how much you enjoyed the meal and hospitality.
In a lot of Arab countries, you will get offers to dine with families. If you cannot make the engagement don’t refuse, simply postpone.
9. Shaking Hands Over The Threshold
One of the many occasions you would expect to shake someone’s hands is when you call to their house, or they arrive at yours.
However, in Russia this is seen as being extremely bad luck. It is thought to be the bearer of a bad argument, so if you’re set on shaking hands, make sure there’s not a threshold in sight.
Handshakes are the norm when arriving or leaving, so it’s good to get into the practice of them. Make sure you take your gloves off before offering or receiving a hand.
10. Blowing Your Nose
Let’s be honest, it’s not the most pleasant of noises most of the time, but when we have a blockage, most of us just tend to go for it.
Unsurprisingly, in many other countries this would cause some serious scandal. Particularly in China, or in fact most Asian countries, where they see it as the height of bad manners. If you really need to do it, make sure you blow your nose in private. Or do what generally seems to be more normal and spit out a wad of phlegm on the sidewalk.
Much better huh?