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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.