There’s no denying that North Americans have their fair share of strange customs. We paint our bodies for football games, we say “break a leg” to performers, and we enjoy deep-frying pretty much anything that is considered edible. As normal as these activities and gestures may seem to someone born and raised in the States, the same can’t be said for foreigners.
When traveling abroad, gestures and customs that seem typical to North Americans can actually end up getting them in trouble. We’ll help you avoid accidentally offending someone on their home turf with these tips on local customs around the world.
Using Your Left Hand Is Considered Disgusting In India
It’s something North Americans don’t think about, but in some countries (mostly the Middle East, India, and parts of Africa) it is considered to be very impolite and dirty to offer your left hand. This is because, historically, the left hand was used for certain sanitary activities.
Just keep a note in the back of your mind that if you are going in for a handshake, to touch food, to comfort someone, or even present someone with a gift, don’t use your left hand! No need to accidentally offend any locals with something as simple as a left hand.
Sitting In The Back Seat Of A Taxi Is Considered Snobby
It’s common practice for North Americans to hail a cab and automatically jump into the back seat. We’re not being rude, it’s just what we’ve been taught to do. Well, in Australia and New Zealand, you do pretty much the same motions: hail a cab, wait for it to stop, open the door, get in. Only, you shouldn’t get into the backseat of the taxi.
If you’re the sole passenger in the car, it is considered to be very snobby to hop into the backseat of the car. Doing so makes the cabbie feel like they are your servant. If you find yourself down under, be sure to hop up front!
Tipping is An Insult In Japan
Like jumping into the backseat of a taxi, tipping is something that North Americans grow up learning to do. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that it is not a common practice in other places around the world.
In Europe, it’s not necessarily expected, and in Japan it is considered to be an insult, making servers feel as if they didn’t do a good job waiting on you. Like most things, while traveling, it is good practice to look up the tipping customs of the country you are going to. If you can avoid it, you don’t want to insult someone!
Putting Your Hands In Your Pockets is Disrespectful In Turkey
In North America, putting your hands on your hips or in your pockets is a casual stance. That couldn’t be further from the truth in Turkey. Turkish people are very proud and respectful of one another, always shaking hands with everyone at a party and making small talk.
Here, it is considered to be very arrogant and disrespectful for someone to place their hands on their hips or inside their pockets while speaking to another person. Especially if that person is older than you. It just goes to show that we should always be mindful of how our body language affects others!
Smiling At Strangers In Russia Is Weird
It’s not uncommon for North Americans to smile at strangers. Sometimes it even helps that person get through a long day, knowing someone had the decency to smile at them for a split second. However, in Russia, it is considered slightly weird and creepy to smile at strangers.
Russian people are a funny bunch, as they will reserve smiling for anyone they have a close relationship with, like family or friends. So, even if you’re just trying to be friendly, keep a straight-lined mouth while walking around the streets of Russia!
Giving A Peace Sign In The UK Doesn’t Mean “Peace”
Unfortunately for the hippie-boho children of North America, if you decide to travel overseas, make sure you don’t go around flashing a peace sign. In the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, this hand motion doesn’t mean peace but is viewed as an obscene gesture, kind of the equivalent of holding up your middle finger to someone.
If you haven’t seen the movie Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman’s character, Winston Churchill, holds up a “V” to a photographer. His assistant later tells him that the gesture does not mean victory or peace, but rather is a street sign for “up your bum.” He was delighted by the news.
Showing The Bottom Of Your Shoe Is Offensive In Southeast Asia And The Middle East
Showing the bottom of your foot isn’t considered to be a huge deal in North America. Especially for men where it’s second nature to sit down and cross one foot over the opposite knee, exposing the sole of one shoe. But in other countries, such as in regions of Southeast Asia and the Middle East, it is considered to be very disrespectful.
In Arab and Buddhist cultures, the bottom of shoes are viewed as dirty and something that should not be put on display. If you feel yourself going to cross your legs, just be conscious that your feet are facing down.
Crossing Your Fingers In Vietnam Is Considered Vulgar
For North Americans, the phrase “good luck” is usually paired with the crossing of their fingers, a universal symbol for good luck. Note that it’s common in North America, but that doesn’t mean you should go around crossing your fingers in other parts of the world. We know, that sounds very funny, but there is a good reason!
For example, in Vietnam, it is considered pretty vulgar to cross your fingers. If you’re seen doing so, people will most likely give you some strange looks. This is because the hand gesture is said to resemble a certain female body part.
Touching Someone’s Head In Buddhist Countries Is A Big No-No
In North America, it’s almost second nature to touch someone’s head, ruffle their hair, or give them a good old-fashioned noogie. But in Buddhist populated countries, such as Sri Lanka and Thailand, touching someone’s head is a big no-no. This is because the people consider the head to be a sacred place where a person’s spirit lives.
Keep in mind that this custom goes for statues as well, especially a Buddha statue. Honestly, it is probably good practice to not go around touching strangers’ heads anyway! Just keep in mind that it is highly frowned up in Buddhist communities.
Giving A Thumbs Up In Greece Is Very Rude
The thumbs-up sign is seen as a symbol of approval in some countries, those in North America included. It’s just another one of those things that we don’t really think about! However, in several countries, such as Greece, the gesture is considered to be vulgar and rude.
Some believe the negative meaning comes from ancient Rome and the gladiators. Giving a thumbs-up indicated that the gladiator had a poor showing and the other man should kill him. Then, on the other side of the coin, if the game master didn’t show their thumb, then the gladiator was meant to be spared. We can see why the Greeks don’t necessarily appreciate the gesture!
Putting Out The Palm Of Your Hand Is Aggressive Behavior In Greece
Putting your hand out palm-first in North America is typically viewed as a way to get someone to stop doing something. Or, perhaps you’re just trying to make a 90s “talk to the hand” reference. Either way, you’re not offending anyone too badly! That’s not the case if you’re traveling through Greece.
In Greece, the gesture is called a mountza and is considered to be the most traditional gesture of insult in their culture. It is seen as very aggressive behavior, and even more so if you do it with both of your hands. So, it seems best to leave your hands at your sides!
Giving The A-OK Sign In Many Places Is Not A-OK
The A-OK sign means many different things in North America. It could mean you’re okay, good, or, if you count oddly, the gesture could even be you counting to three. That being said, in other places around the world, the hand sign means something completely different.
In France, if you give someone the A-OK symbol, you’re pretty much calling them worthless. That’s probably something you want to avoid alluding to! Then, in Venezuela and Brazil, the action represents a body part that no one wants to be called.
Don’t Whistle Indoors If You’re In Russia
Russians are very superstitious people, so when someone tells you not to do something because it is going to bring bad luck, you should listen! One such thing is whistling while you are inside. While it may seem silly to North Americans who enjoy humming or whistling along to music, it is considered to be a huge no-no in Russia.
Even if you’re in North America with a group of Russians, they will scold you if they hear you whistling while under a roof. This is because they believe that the action will lead to bad luck and the loss of money.
The Rock And Roll Gesture Means Something Else In Italy
Raising your pointer and pinky finger in North America is generally accepted as the symbol for “rock on.” It’s a gesture that is common to see at concerts and in photographs where the group is doing funny expressions. However, if you make this symbol in Italy, Spain, Portugal, or parts of South America, you are indicating something completely different.
If you point bull horns at someone, they’re going to think that their significant other is being unfaithful. Most often then not, it is an indication to a man that his wife is committing adultery. That is so not rock and roll.
Be Sure To Always Finish Your Food In Japan
North Americans are notorious for their portion sizes, so when we go abroad it is common for us to overeat, or order too much and waste some of the food. If you find yourself in Japan, be sure you know how much you are ordering and be sure not to waste any!
It is considered disrespectful for a person to not finish all of the food they are served, whether it be at someone’s home or a restaurant. The custom is related to one of the fundamental concepts of Japanese culture, mottainai, meaning the feeling of regret for wasting something. Considering how good Japanese food is, this shouldn’t be hard!
Publicly Blowing Your Nose Is Gross In France
In North America, no one thinks twice about someone blowing their nose on a bus or while they’re walking down the sidewalk. People get colds, after all! In France, their thoughts about public nose blowing are a bit different.
The French view the action as not only rude and gross but also as a sign of poor upbringing. It is expected for a person to wait to blow their nose until they are alone in a bathroom. Also, don’t carry a handkerchief, as they might find the idea of a reusable cloth repulsive. Pretty much, don’t get sick before traveling here!
Don’t Accept Gifts Right Away In China
Gifts are wonderful, and North Americans are more than happy to accept anything you give them, tearing into the wrappings right away. That being said, gifts can be a trap in some places if you’re not familiar with the cultural norms. For example, in China, it is considered rude to accept a gift right away (unless it’s food!).
It is excepted for the gift receiver to decline the gift at least three times before ultimately accepting. Also, if you make it to the “three no’s” mark and have the gift in hand, make sure you do not open it unless the giver asks you to. It is seen as greedy.
Don’t Wear Sweatpants While Out In The Netherlands
Right now, North Americans are in an “athleisure” phase of dressing in public. This means that we like to be comfortable and will wear leggings, sweatpants, t-shirts, and baseball caps out in the open and not think twice about it. Well, if you’re traveling to the Netherlands be sure to pack some nicer clothing options!
In the Netherlands, as well as parts of Asia and Europe, it is considered sloppy and rude to go out wearing things such as track pants and tank tops. We recommend having some pants or a skirt handy in your suitcase, and wear closed-toe shoes unless you’re at the beach!
Be Cautious Of Small Talk In the Netherlands
North Americans are notorious for being “small talkers.” We like to ask questions that break the ice a bit so we can get to know a person. One of the most common questions that we ask is, “what do you do?” A simple question that is actually considered to be insulting in the Netherlands.
Asking someone what they do for a living is viewed as classist. Meaning they think you are going to judge a person’s character based on their profession. To these folks, the question is comparable to asking what their salary is, something that is considered rude to ask in North America.
Don’t Wear Clothing Inside A Sauna In Scandinavian Countries
While some North Americans are modest when it comes to exposing their bodies, it is considered offensive in Scandinavian countries if you leave clothing on while going into a sauna. Not even a bathing suit or underwear is considered to be acceptable.
This is because a sauna is viewed as a place of physical purification and reflection. It is a place where the outside world doesn’t exist and shouldn’t be allowed through the doors — i.e. clothing. If you find yourself in a sauna and don’t want to wear your birthday suit, it is okay to strip down and wrap yourself in a towel.
No Matter Where You Are If Someone Asks, Don’t Say You’re From “America”
Throughout this article, we’ve been using the phrase “North American” instead of American. This is because America is two continents, north and south, and not one big country. After hearing you speak, it is common for people to ask where you are from.
If the question comes about, be sure to say you are from the United States and not “America.” People who are not from America will be confused with the terminology because they’ve grown up knowing North and South America. By saying you’re from the United States you’re cutting out any confusion and making it so you’re showing respect to the other American countries.
Be Sure To Remove Your Shoes Before Entering A Pacific Islanders Home
North Americans are used to not having to worry about taking their shoes off when entering a home or somewhere sacred. Shoes are meant to keep our feet warm and clean, after all. But that’s exactly why, when entering a Pacific Islander’s home, you should be sure you take off your shoes.
Not doing so is viewed as disrespectful. Not only is it very practical in keeping all of the dirt and sand that has collected on the bottom of your shoes out of the house, but it is also a sign of leaving the outside world behind. Some people even have designated slippers for guests!
Laughing With An Open Mouth Is Considered Un-Ladylike In Japan
In North America, people typically don’t think twice about laughing out loud. It’s just an expression that says you’re having a good time! That being said, if you are traveling to Japan, keep in mind that locals tend to avoid showing their teeth while laughing, even going as far as covering their mouths.
Emily Jones, a travel blogger or Henry and Andrew’s Guide, says, “Traditionally, it’s considered ‘unladylike’ to laugh out loud with teeth showing. When it comes to laughing and covering their mouths, germs aren’t a big factor. It’s more of what Japanese woman have done historically, and what Japanese society finds as graceful and womanly.”
Make Sure To Look Germans In The Eye When Toasting
For North Americans, not making direct eye contact while speaking to someone is considered rude, indifferent, and, in some cases, weak. Since it’s a habit for most, you need to be careful about how long you keep eye contact with people in different countries. In some Asian countries, for example, prolonged eye contact will make a local very uncomfortable.
While in Germany, you best make sure you make eye contact if anyone is making a toast. If you don’t, a German superstition says that both you and the toaster are in for seven years of bad luck in the bedroom.
Punctuality Is Very Important In Germany
The phrase “fashionably late” is often thrown around in North America because we don’t expect people to arrive to a dinner party right on time. More often then not, guests will arrive 30 minutes later than the appointed time. No big deal! Well, if you’re in Germany it is considered to be a very big deal.
Germans are very punctual people and they will arrive exactly on time. So, if you have a dinner reservation for seven at night, be sure to arrive right at seven, if not a few minutes early! This is especially important if you are going to meet people.
It’s Rude Being On Time In Argentina
On the other side of the punctuality coin, the people of Argentina would consider it bad form if you showed up exactly on time for a dinner party. Think of how much North Americans dislike it when people show up an hour early. It’s pretty much the same thing.
It is said that the norm is arriving 20 to 40 minutes after the appointed hour. So, take your time getting ready for the dinner party. Maybe enjoy a nice glass of wine while picking out your clothing. No need to rush these things!
Don’t Spit In Singapore Unless You Want A Huge Fine
Not to stereotype, but North American men usually don’t think twice about spitting on the ground. Especially if they’re playing a game such as baseball, soccer, or basketball. It’s not considered to be a big deal because let’s face it, the act is very common. One place where it is not common at all and is viewed as a dirty action is Singapore.
Singapore is known for being an extremely clean city-state. So, it’s really no surprise that people think spitting on the ground is dirty. If you do so, you might even be subject to a $1,000 SGD fine!
Don’t Alter Your Meals In Spain
In North American restaurants it’s commonplace to see condiments on the table, such as ketchup, hot sauce, salt, and pepper. If they’re not on the table, then it is perfectly acceptable to ask your waiter or waitress if they could grab you some. No harm no foul! But keep in mind that in foodie countries, such as Spain, it is considered insulting to the chef asking for such things.
Asking the wait staff for salt or pepper is bound to raise more than one eyebrow, in Spain. Honestly, the food here is so good that the last thing on your mind is adding anything to a dish anyway!
Don’t Think About Eating On A Bus In Rwanda
North Americans always seem to be in a hurry, meaning we eat whenever and wherever we can. Running late to the bus? Grab a banana and eat it once you find a seat. No big deal! Well, if you’re in Rwanda you’re going to want to work on your timing because it is not okay to eat in a public place that isn’t a restaurant, bar, or hotel.
This means that you can’t run into the nearest 7-11 to grab a quick bagel in the morning and eat it on the sidewalk. Tourists might get away with it, but keep in mind that it is viewed as highly disrespectful.
Don’t Ask Someone In The Philippines To “Come Here” With Your Hands
In North America, it is common for people to use their hands to express what they’re saying aloud. We like to call it “talking with our hands.” One such gesture that we use is signaling with our hands for someone to “come here.” Innocent enough of a signal until you travel to the Philippines.
This type of gesture is usually reserved solely for dogs and therefore is offensive to humans. In the Philippines, if you call someone using your hands, they’ll think you’re comparing them to a dog. We know it’s hard, but just be cautious about using hand motions overseas!