Every culture has its own unique customs and cultures. Things that are considered polite and necessary in one community can be considered rude and offensive in others. As travellers, we don't want to offend our hosts, so how can we avoid accidental rudeness?
This post can't list every global cultural norm and interpretation but will give a broad overview. Customs about food, beverages, and eating are so vast that a separate, future post will need to be written. Before travelling, always do an internet search for your specific destination.
Over the years, I learned to quickly Google information about basic cultural practices and common types of accidental rudeness that I need to know about my destination. Digging a little deeper, the most common incidences often have to do with our "body language" and gestures.
Experts say that we share more information through body language than we do through oral language. Every parent (and child!) knows the powerful communication that comes with "The Look". Most of that information is conveyed with facial expressions
Eyes In many western cultures, direct eye contact is interpreted as a sign of honesty, respect and directness. However, in Japan and other Asian cultures, eye contact is often considered disrespectful. In some Caribbean cultures, eye contact can be perceived as aggression.
Winking can also have a variety of interpretations. In Western and Latin countries, a wink is often flirty. In western Africa, a wink is a parental signal to children. In Islamic countries, winking at women is highly offensive and disrespectful. Head Gestures
In Bulgaria, locals shake their heads yes and nod no. In India, tilting one's head from side to side is a sign of agreement. In Greece and Cyprus, a single nod means no when it is accompanied by an eye roll and a pfft but if the nodder closes their eyes, it means yes!
Be aware, touching a person’s head is considered VERY rude in most parts of Asia. In Buddhist culture, the head is the highest part of the body and is thought of as sacred. In countries with large Buddhist populations such as Thailand, Laos, China, and Cambodia, touching someone’s head is an incredibly invasive gesture.
Smiling In North America and Australia, greeting a stranger with a smile communicates our friendly intention. In western European countries, smiles for strangers are less common and in eastern European countries, smiles are rare and are usually saved for friends and family.
Unrestrained, loud laughter is perceived very differently around the world. In my neck of the woods, when something is funny we laugh loudly. In many parts of Asia, if you erupt in laughter, especially when showing your teeth, you would be thought "horse-like" and impolite, especially women. Exuberant laughter is stifled into giggles hidden behind a hand.
Hands. This is a particular challenge for those of us who use our hands when speaking. Gestures are often like slang that only makes sense to locals. In Middle Eastern countries, and some western African and Mediterranean countries, the thumbs-up gesture is interpreted in the same way that raising the middle finger is interpreted in most western cultures.
The "okay" sign usually means "useless" in France and Portugal. In Turkey, Malta, Brazil and Venezuela it is a way of calling someone else an "arsehole". It has also become a very racist gesture in the USA.
Pointing can also be tricky. In plenty of countries pointing directly at something or someone with your index finger is not acceptable. Instead, gesture with your whole hand with the palm facing upwards. In Thailand, Korea, and Japan giving and receiving should be done with both hands.
In some Slavic and Mediterranean countries, the "rock on" gesture with pinky and index finger extended is used as a taunt. In Norway, it's the sign of the devil. Crossing your fingers in Canada is a sign of hopeful good luck but is quite vulgar in Vietnam. Left Hand vs Right Hand
When travelling in India and parts of the Middle East, it's important to be aware of which hand you use to offer for handshakes, exchanging money or items but especially when eating. The left hand is used in these areas for toilet tasks.
While all these customs regarding our hand usage, it may be tempting to just keep your hands in your pocket, but this is considered to be arrogant and disrespectful in places like South Korea and Turkey, as Bill Gates discovered.
Hanging out barefoot or in flip-flops in California or Australia is common but in Asia, India, or the Middle East displaying the soles of your feet is rude. The soles of your feet are considered to be the lowest and dirtiest parts of your body. Similarly, don't use your feet for pointing.
It's also a good idea to research whether shoes are worn inside homes and places of worship.
Bonus Accidental Rudeness
In many cultures blowing one's nose in public is extremely rude, especially in China and Japan. In France, it is also considered an indication of general poor etiquette. The polite thing to do is to excuse yourself and find a private place. Use a paper tissue; cloth handkerchiefs are seen as repulsive.
Tipping Tipping is one of the trickiest areas to navigate. It would be highly offensive in North America NOT to tip servers at least 15% - 20%. Cab drivers and hotel staff also expect tips. In Europe, tips for servers are not expected but it is common to "round up" and leave a small amount. Service is often included and no additional tip is expected, although it will be appreciated. However, in Japan leaving a tip is actually offensive. Offering a tip in Japan can be perceived as patronizing. Small Talk
For North Americans "small talk" might include asking someone what they do for a living as part of a first conversation. In parts of northern Europe and South America that would be considered an invasive question, designed to judge one's worthiness. Obviously, religion and politics is always a good topic to avoid with people you don't know well. On the other hand, make sure to greet others (including employees of retail stores and restaurants) when encountering them. Say hello before launching into a request. Offer apologies for disrupting someone when asking for assistance.
Take the time to do some advance research regarding the etiquette and customs in your destination. Your internet search may not tell you everything you need. It's a good idea to demonstrate deference. Most people will realize that you are a traveller and an obviously open attitude will show your intention if you inadvertently offend.
Thanks for meandering with me! Have you ever been accidentally rude? What did you learn about travel from that experience? Tell me in the comments. If you are enjoying the blog, please share the link and help grow the readership. Become a member to get notified of new content, access to the members' forum, and a monthly newsletter.