25 Cultural Faux Pas You Don’t Want To Commit While Traveling

Posted by on June 4, 2012

Believe it or not there are a lot of things you do everyday that would be considered completely disrespectful and rude in other parts of the world. Take for example when Richard Nixon flicked off the entire country of Brazil by waving the “a-ok” sign from the steps of Air Force One. Of course, you might just be an average traveler so who will really bother you if you mess up a little bit. Well, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Although most of the items on this list are silly or laughable, not heeding others can cost you your very life. Here are 25 cultural faux pas you don’t want to commit while traveling (Note: locations are specified in general terms. Culture within countries varies significantly so when we refer to Brazil for example, it doesn’t necessarily mean all of Brazil).

25

Pointing at people using your feet (Southeast Asia)

Although we’re not sure why you would do this, if you happen to be passing through Southeast Asia, refrain from pointing your feet at other people. In some regions of Thailand and Laos the feet are considered the “lowest” and “dirtiest” part of the body, which is also partly why you should take your shoes off before entering someone’s house.

24

Touching people on the head (parts of Asia)

When in Asia, don’t pat or touch people on top of their head. Just don’t do it. In some Southeast Asian cultures, particularly in Thailand and Laos, the head is considered sacred and you just never know what sort of faux pas you may be committing by reaching for it.

23

A quick handshake (Fiji)

When first introducing yourself in Fiji be prepared – the handshake can be intense by western standards. After the initial firm downward motion your hands may very well remain clasped for the duration of your conversation.

22

Stepping over someone (Nepal)

Related to the fact that feet are considered dirty in much of south Asia, the Nepalese would take great offense to the act of stepping over someone, in particular stepping over their outstretched legs. It’s best to just go around.

21

Shaking hands across a threshold (Russia)

In Russia, trying to shake someone’s hand across a threshold may quite literally leave you empty handed. In fact, trying to conduct any transaction at all across a threshold is probably not a good idea. Russian superstition holds that this is unlucky and many times you will find that people either wait until they are invited in or you yourself step out.

20

Not realizing you are being complimented (India)

India is one of those places with so much diversity that even the locals could get confused over what’s taboo and what isn’t. Once thing you should be aware of though is that in some regions body language, especially during an introduction can be fairly involved. If someone approaches you with their tongue between their teeth all while apparently waving the air around you onto themselves, don’t panic…they’re just complimenting you on your beauty.

19

Throwing up the “peace sign” (United Kingdom and other Commmonwealth Nations)

This one has managed to instigate its fair share of trouble. What most people in the United States would consider to be the peace sign is in fact the equivalent of giving someone the finger in the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa. Just remember that this only applies should your palm be facing you. If your palm is facing outwards then your in the clear.

18

A quick hello (Morocco)

In Morocco it is considered impolite to see someone you know, say “hi”, and keep walking. So whenever you see your friends on the street be prepared to discuss your family, children, and health. Strangely enough in some cases these inquiries are made by both parties simultaneously without either side waiting for the other to respond.

17

Shaking your head up and down to signify “yes” (Bulgaria)

This one is probably going to throw you off a bit. While visiting Bulgaria it would behoove you to remember that yes means no and no means yes…at least to outsiders. What do we mean? Well lets just say if your host asks you whether you enjoyed their meal you had better shake your head left to right, meaning yes. Shake your head up and down and you may well find yourself eating out for the rest of your trip.

16

Giving someone a thumbs up (Iran)

Generally speaking while it would be safe to assume that giving someone a thumbs up is a fairly positive gesture, we would suggest you not jump to any conclusions, especially in Iran and several other Middle Eastern countries. In these countries it traditionally translates as the foulest of gesticular insults and is definitely something worth avoiding.

15

Shaking or giving giving gifts with your left hand (Indian Subcontinent/Middle East)

If you plan on spending any time in the Middle East or the Indian Subcontinent you should get used to the idea of not using your left hand to eat or even hand people things. In many cultures it is considered unclean due the fact that it is used to perform tasks most westerners typically reserve for toilet paper.

14

Inter-gender handshakes (Middle East)

Throughout the Muslim world, inter-gender handshaking can be a bit of an enigma. Although the rules aren’t easily decipherable and for the most part it varies considerably, it would be highly advisable on your part to think twice before shaking hands with, touching, or in some cases even looking at someone of the opposite sex.

13

Public displays of affection (Saudi Arabia)

Taking this a bit further we offer those of you with aspirations of visiting Dubai or Saudi Arabia a bit of advice. If you are going with your significant other be sure to avoid any public displays of affection. This includes kissing, holding hands, and even hugging. Unless of course, you’d like an up close and personal tour of the nation’s prison facilities…it’s happened to numerous westerners in the past.

12

Giving the “a-ok” sign (Brazil)

Going back to hand gestures here is one you certainly want to avoid, at least for the duration of your visit to Brazil. Although typically it would signify “ok”, to a Brazilian it would be the equivalent of giving them the finger.

11

Pointing your palm at somebody (Greece)

Formed by extending your hand with its palm outwards, the Moutza as it is known in Greece, is a highly offensive gesture. The only thing worse, in fact, is the double moutza. That’s right, you guessed it…both hands. If you find the need to hand signal the number 5 just make sure that your palm is facing towards you.

David Pegg

About

After helping found the United Nations, the United States, and United Airlines, David consigned himself to a transient life of writing lists and sleeping on park benches.

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  • Valma P Cronau

    There is a big difference between the peace sign and giving someone the finger in Australia.

  • tern

    This left hand thing is stupid, because no culture has ever needed to do toilet stuff with an unprotected hand. Because people are stupid, it can’t be said that no culture ever has done it, but no culture has ever needed to. It’s absurdly in conflict with the hand’s evolution to disable one hand in this way, which proves it was not happening in the caveman age.

    You can always use some loose object. The audio tour at Doune castle in Scotland, narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, tells you all about that. They used bits of cloth or pottery in Middle Ages loos. In other places I have heard archaeology discussing findings of clumps of vegetation that were used.

  • Florian

    Number 4: Shaking hands; no one does that in austria, even at things like buisness meetings. Only exception maybe would be family meetings, but only when there are family members you don’t see that often, and most people don’t do that either…

  • Fin

    In the UK the peace sign is, well the peace sign. It just depends on the direction on your hand. If you give the peace sign palm front that’s the peace sign. However, if you give it with your palm facing you… that’s basically saying f*** off.

  • Ho Geer How

    #7 is wrong info, please don’t mislead everyone. I’m a Singaporean, and not only I chew chewing gum in Singapore, I also bring chew gum into Singapore whenever I go overseas and back. It is ONLY illegal to sell chewing gum in Singapore. They figure out the most effective way is to cut the supply, not by suppressing demand. You can chew all you want in Singapore as long as you have them, and you can chew it in front of police station too. Just remember not to throw it on the streets. You can also bring it in for your own consumption. Of course you don’t bring in 10 cartons, that will be asking for trouble.

  • Chan5l

    In South Africa the Peace sign is just that…the Peace sign. Not sure where you got you info from…

  • Lalah

    Where did you get #5 from?? thats definitely not true anywhere in Brazil (Im born and raised brazilian and have lived in different parts of the country).

    • Paula

      I’m Brazilian too and #5 is definitely not true.
      Also, the “OK” symbol can also mean “OK” here. It all depends on the way you’re gesticulating it. But you need to be careful nonetheless :)

  • Big Foot

    #2 is the funniest. When I go to Asia at some point I will be sure to, instead of finishing my food, throw part of it out (at least I didn’t eat it).

  • Rekha

    I found this to be an interesting list, just haven’t experienced the “tongue in cheek” compliment in all these years. Even In India, a lot of older men and women don’t like to shake hands with the opposite sex.

  • SeungJae Kang

    In Korea, it is a faux pas to call somebody over to you using your index finger, especially if your palm is facing up. This is considered a gesture for animals. You have use your whole hand with your fingers pointing down and sort of wave them over to you.

    Also if your are giving something or receiving something from some who is older than you, you have to do it with both hands. For example, pouring a drink for someone older than you. Or accepting money. Both hands.

    It’s also taboo to kiss in public in Korea. Hugging is okay, holding hands is okay, but kissing is a no-no.

    You know what is okay though? (Though I advise you not to do it) it’s okay to cuss at people when you’re drunk because you’re drunk and you don’t know any better. People get drunk in Korea all the time. Just don’t cuss at kids. Or pregnant ladies. And don’t drive either, because that’s not faux pas, that’s illegal.

    In Korea, it’s okay to slurp your noodles loudly. This means that you are enjoying your meal. I don’t know about burping, though.
    ~강승재

    • Iksan shi

      Kissing is fine these days. I see it all the time at a Korean university where I teach. Burping, also, is cool.

  • Chloe!!!!!!!

    In Australia the peace sign is the peace sign, mate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=536118629 Pedro Castro Fernandes

    Hi, I’m from Brazil.

    Here, the “a-ok” sign MAY mean “ass”. But it depends of the context. So, there’s no problem to do it.

    Interrupting a conversation to answer the phone is common, but it’s not rude if you don’t.

    Great post =)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002072275321 Sami Tareq

    hi
    i am one of the fans of this website

    and i just have Reviews in the information you mentioned about the middle east

    Inter-gender handshakes yes it is consider as Something forbidden in Islam

    but just the Conservative Muslims who apply it

    other people Usually don’t mind

    and about Public displays of affection in Saudi Arabia
    kissing in public is very Inappropriate and socially unacceptable
    but holding hands or hugging there is nothing wrong with it
    and might be some Saudis don’t do it because the traditions

    the last thing about
    Eating in public during Ramadan it is
    forbidden for Muslims eating in the Middle of the day during Ramadan
    but Non-Muslims they can eat

    and i am Saudi and i know there is no low Punishes who does not fast

    • http://www.knowledgeofasia.com/ Mark

      As a non-Muslim I try my best not to eat in front of Muslims during Ramadan. I’d find it disrespectful if someone were to eat in front of me when I was trying to fast. Sometimes we don’t need laws to tell us what is right and wrong :)