When you travel around the world, you probably aim to be respectful of each and every culture you encounter. But you'd be surprised how easy it is to be rude without knowing.
Travelling alone has its perks. You get to do what you want, when you want; discover new and honest things about the world and yourself; and enjoy an uplifting, mindful travelling experience without someone else's influences. But after a while, talking to yourself and eating another meal without being able to share funny thoughts and observations about the day with an another human get... awfully lonesome.
Asking someone what they do for a living might seem like a pretty common question when you're meeting someone. But that kind of small talk won't fly in France, the Netherlands, as well as many other countries in Europe and throughout the world. Many see it as a way of measuring or pigeonholing them. When in doubt, it's usually best to avoid personal questions about jobs, religion, family and politics unless prompted.
Some small talk is necessary, though. The smallest of small talk: Saying "hello". In many countries throughout the world, not saying hello when you enter a establishment or encounter someone new is extremely rude. It's basically saying you think you're above them.
Blowing Your Nose
Blowing your nose in public is considered to be extremely rude in places like China and Japan. And in France, blowing your nose is in public is not only rude, but a sign of bad upbringing. Save the nose blowing for when you're alone in the bathroom, and don't carry a handkerchief for that purpose. Use disposable tissues instead as many cultures find the idea of handkerchiefs repulsive.
If you want to go see the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon, there are tons of well-written travel guides to help. If you want something a little more offbeat, you're probably on your own. Luckily, there are a ton of resources to help you plan a more interesting, original trip without winding up wishing you never went.
Laughing With Your Mouth Open
When something's funny, you want to laugh loud and proud. But that kind of behaviour can be rude in Japan and some other parts of Asia. There, laughing with your mouth open, exposing your teeth, is considered impolite and "horse-like". This is especially true for women. That's where the trope of giggling Japanese girls covering their mouths comes from.
If you thought tipping was controversial in the US, wait until you head to Europe, Japan or South Korea. Not only is tipping not expected, it can be considered an insult. What you think is a nice gesture and incentive comes across as demeaning charity. Tipping is different everywhere, so always check what the custom is before you go somewhere new.
Making Common Gestures
What a gesture means in one place is rarely what it means elsewhere. All of these physical actions should be avoided while you travel:
- Thumbs up: Depending on where you are, a thumbs-up is another version of giving the finger or saying "up yours". Avoid doing it, especially if you're in Russia, Greece, Western Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
- Crossing your fingers: A sign of hopeful good luck here, but a vulgar symbol in Vietnam (it supposedly resembles a vagina).
- A-OK sign: The classic thumb to index finger circle that says "perfect" says something else in Brazil, Germany, France, Venezuela and Turkey. In those places it means "arsehole".
- Keeping hands in pockets: This is considered arrogant and disrespectful in many places, including Turkey and South Korea (just ask Bill Gates).
- Crossing your legs/showing the soles of your feet: Throughout the Middle East, as well as Hindu and Buddhist countries, crossing your legs to show the soles of your feet is a massive symbol of disrespect. Your feet — especially the bottoms — are considered to be the dirtiest part of the body and shouldn't be displayed to anyone. Same goes for gesturing or pointing with your feet. Don't do it.
- Touching people: Personal space is different in every culture, so it's best to just keep your hands to yourself unless prompted otherwise.
While some of these gestures are only taboo in some parts of the world, you're probably better off avoiding them everywhere. Better to be safe — and respectful — than sorry.
We all have an invisible bubble around us we like to call our 'personal space'. If someone hovers inside it for too long, you feel uncomfortable. But everyone's bubble size is different from culture to culture. Here's what those bubbles look like around the world.
Dressing Like a Slob
In parts of Asia and Europe going out in public in track pants, athletic shorts, tank tops, baseball caps and other comfortable "athleisure" gear is considered sloppy and rude. Put on some pants or a skirt, wear a shirt that doesn't have some stupid slogan on it, and wear closed-toe shoes unless you're at a resort or something.
Meal time is when most cultural snafus occur. Here are some things you need to avoid:
- Don't reject food or drink: You might think you're being polite by telling your host not to bother bringing you anything, but it's very rude to reject anything being offered to you in most places around the world. Just take it.
- Don't ask for condiments to modify dishes: Unless you have a serious allergy, eat a dish the exact way it was given to you. It's impolite to ask for something that isn't already being offered. You're basically saying something is wrong with the food they gave you and you want to fix it. Rude.
- Don't clean your plate: In many countries, especially throughout Asia, eating all of your food suggests you're still hungry and want more. This might be fine in a restaurant where they can always bring you more food, but if you're at a home where supply is limited, you're basically saying they failed to give you enough.
- Don't take the first bite: Unless you're asked to start eating, wait for someone else to take the first bite. Depending on where you are this could be the oldest person at the table or the person with the most seniority.
- Don't use your left hand: If you're in India, Morocco, Africa or the Middle East, always use your right hand to eat. The right hand is for eating, the left hand is for other duties, like, uh, wiping...
- Don't eat where you're not supposed to: If you're not in a dining room or restaurant, it's considered rude to eat there. I learned this the hard way in Japan when people stared at my friend and I as we ate a quick breakfast outside of a 7-11.
Make sure you check for specific customs before you head somewhere, but these rules should help you get by in most places.
Gifts are lovely, but they can be a trap if you aren't familiar with local customs. For one, don't accept a gift the first time it's offered to you (unless it's food). Many cultures expect you to decline a gift several times before reluctantly accepting it. Also, never open a gift immediately in front of the gift giver unless they ask you to. It makes you look greedy and impatient.
Street food is one of the best ways to experience a country's culture. While these makeshift stalls might look risky, street food is often just as safe — if not safer — than restaurants. Ask any experienced adventurer. Still, there are a few basic rules you should know to avoid any problems.
Taking the Wrong Seat In a Taxi
In Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, and the Netherlands, it's rude not to ride shotgun in a taxi, even if it isn't full. Taxi drivers think going right for the back is snobby, and they'd rather you ride up front with them and chat. In other countries such as the US, convention is that you jump in the back instead.
This story has been updated since its original publication.