America, in comparison to many western countries have plenty of similarities in both cultural and ethical perspectives.
However, when traveling abroad through various countries and continents, the “game” of proper etiquette changes in a lot of ways. In many instances, making the wrong gesture or doing the wrong thing could mean the difference between making a friend and losing one.
In some instances, what’s perceived as an inappropriate action or expression can even cause one to be offended to the extent of abandoning your conversation – or even disregarding you in the future.
Let’s consider 12 “No-No’s” for Americans when traveling abroad.
1. Using your left hand.
Avoid using your left hand for shaking hands, using utensils, tools, and waiving. Even writing or making agreements with the left hand can be perceived as ignorant or disrespectful.
In Asian countries in particular, this act is considered so offensive (as well as in other continents) because history shows through most places around the world that the left hand has a history of being used in less than sanitary-roles. So left or right-handed, keep your left hand to yourself!
2. Giving the A-OK sign.
When traveling abroad, everything is not “A.O.K”. So be careful with your hand-signs when traveling in foreign countries. In many countries, making the “OK” gesture with your hand can be perceived as a direct insult to another individual. In some Latin countries, such as Brazil, giving this expression to someone could be perceived as calling them an “A@#$#@!”.
In other places, including European locations such as France, and Turkey or Latin American countries like Venezuela, giving the OK sign can be perceived as self-identifying as a homosexual. You may be better off keeping your hand or hands in your pocket – but not in ALL places! Checkout the next piece of advice to learn more about your hands and pockets.
3. Keeping your hands hidden or tucked away in your pockets.
Whether you have one or both hand in your pockets, in places like Korea or even Turkey this can be perceived as ignorant and disrespectful. For one, it makes you ill-prepared to respond to any sort of formal handshake, to receive anything from someone you’re engaged with, as well as being unprepared to give something that might be necessary to someone in any given scenario.
In fact, in many countries keeping a hand or both hands in your pockets when in the presence of police or military can be perceived as a direct threat, and lead to an unwanted confrontation – unsurprisingly, the same advice might be applied to life in America as well.
4. Touching someone’s head.
While many Americans are brought up with the idea or habit of touching a child’s head or a person’s back as an expression of endearment or love, this is far from the case – especially in many Asian countries.
Buddhist-dominant countries in particular might find this especially offensive, as they consider the head the most sacred part of the body. The head is symbolized as being spiritual, and the key or holding place for faith, as well as ones contained intelligence. Thailand and Sri Lanka are also two other random places you might want to keep your hands to yourself.
5. Giving the thumbs-up.
Although in American culture we’re taught that the thumbs-up gesture means OK or good, this is not the case in a handful of countries. In fact many countries, across various continents find this gesture offensive. Just a few off hand (no pun intended) are Afghanistan, Greece, West African, and many Latin American countries.
There are also other various Middle Eastern countries where this gesture is perceived as disrespectful or an insult. We’re not completely sure why so many countries take this gesture as an insult, but one might speculate that it’s a sign of passive-aggression or “targeting” someone demonstrating you have ill-intentions towards them.
6. Sitting in the back seat of a taxi.
While in most American cities it’s by nature that we hop in the backseat of a taxi, whether the front is occupied or not, this isn’t the case for some European countries, as well as New Zealand and Australia. These countries arguably have a more “friendly”, personable culture, and in turn would like to be treated as such – whether you’re a tourist or not.
Therefore, unless you’re a woman and doing it for prospective safety-reasons, consider jumping into the (if unoccupied) front passenger seat of your next taxi-cab when traveling abroad in the aforementioned countries and attempt to “bond” a bit or get to know your driver better.
In American culture, perhaps dependent upon the state, type of establishment, and quality of service we have unspoken rules or implied tipping percentage rates in mind. Some say 5-10% for mediocre service, 15-20% for extra convenient and prompt service, and some even pay as much as 25% of their bill in the form of a tip! When it comes to other countries however, sometimes attempting to tip your waitress can be perceived as disrespectful and insulting.
Most European countries don’t accept or request tips – and some restaurants, like in America, include the tip or gratuity in the “final bill”. Go to visit somewhere like Japan however and attempting to tip your waiter or waitress could be perceived as very insulting! We don’t know why, but just take our word for it through experience and EXPAT forums that doing so is a big no-no if you wish to maintain a happy waitress, and positive reputation for yourself.
8. Chewing gum in public.
We know that for smokers, or those trying to quit, some people often have a propensity to constantly be chewing on bubblegum or hard-candies. There are, of course, also those that just love chewing gum in varying places or social situations for no particular reason at all.
However, if you’re going to visit European countries, especially France, or places like Luxembourg, all the way to Singapore, do away with the bubblegum – or work hard to conceal it!
Chewing gum in these, as well as other countries, is perceived to be disrespectful and even obnoxious. It’s seen as a conversational distraction, and many cultures perceive the display of the inside of your mouth (similar to the sole of your shoe rule) as insulting and inappropriate – or even immature.
Lastly, some of these countries perceive the activity of chewing bubble-gum to represent a lack of interest in a conversation, or a sign of not taking someone seriously – especially in a professional, or social, interaction and environment.
9. Whistling in public.
You like whistling or walking around with your headphones blaring? Think again before visiting some countries like Haiti, or other nations across both Africa and even Soviet-era influenced or powered locations such as Russia, Ukraine, or Even Armenia.
Whistling is considered an inappropriate expression of happiness, or a lack of care to your surroundings – kind of makes sense when considering those that cause or are involved with car accidents are often walking with their headphones blaring and not paying attention to their surroundings.
Likewise, having your head-phones blaring while navigating around a foreign country can be perceived as ignorant, or even pompous – it’s to as if demonstrate that you’re better than those around you, do not care for them, or do not “need” them for any reason – such as interactions.
10. Not refusing gifts.
In many countries, including Japan and even Russia, refusing a gift at first can be seen as being polite, but accepting it on the second offer is seen as proper etiquette.
However, there’s a real “catch-22” when it comes to the consideration of Russian or soviet-influenced cultures, as often Russians and other Slovaks are fast to offer you anything or everything you show interest in within their house when you are a guest.
On the other hand, as discussed below, offering or bringing a gift to a dinner invitation at a friend’s house is often recommended or seen as normal. Let’s discover that one below.
11. Being on time.
Being “on-time” and leaving “on-time”. Again shifting our focus to Slovak cultures, being on time to a date or dinner meeting can be a rather unusual concept to understand. Typically, Americans are raised to always be 15-30 minutes early to appointments.
However, in this case of many European and Slovak cultures, being early can actually be perceived as being inappropriate, or “rushing” the house-hosts and their party arrangements.
So, in such cases, don’t be afraid to be 10-15 minutes later to a dinner meeting – or even better, text or call your friend and ask them what the most respectable time to come would be.
This expression of honest, accommodating efforts will be perceived positively and respectfully, and any good, loving Slovak or European friend will more than likely be happy to enlighten you as to the “true” best time of arrival.
12. Blowing your nose in public.
In Japan and Korea it’s considered extremely rude to blow your nose in public. Instead, people will just sniffle away for hours on end instead of resorting to a tissue.
If you really think about it, this one is not as strange as a lot of the other entries on the list. After-all in America the bathroom is reserved for almost every other activity that involves getting rid of waste from your body, but for some reason nose-blowing in public is considered only minor annoyance.
In Japanese the word for nasal discharge, hanakuso, literally means “nose waste.”
13. Open-mouth laughing.
Americans love a good belly laugh, but in Japan, laughing with your mouth open and your teeth exposed is seen as extremely rude.
The Japanese believe that this type of laughter sounds alot like a horse and it is considered especially unladylike, which explains why you always see Japanese women covering their mouths even for the tiniest of giggles!