Travelling to foreign country without research puts you at risk of committing cultural faux pas. Mostly, the locals will just laugh at you, call you a dumb tourists, or throw you side glances. The cost, however, can be greater. In particular, Americans who have traveled abroad without regard to local customs have been fined, caned, or even jailed.
Travelling can be scary and worrisome, but do not panic. Everyone does it at one point or another when travelling.
Take the United States, for instance. How is a foreigner supposed to know that Americans say “bless you” after sneezing? It doesn’t make sense anymore and originates back before America became a country; yet, it is considered to be rude when people do not say it. Even elevator rides – people are supposed stare at anything except each other. In other countries, not talking is considered rude and people have no problem standing very close to one another.
Some faux pas are ridiculously obscure. Unless you know someone from that area or are really gifted at minding (looking at you Professor Xavier), you are likely to commit these faux pas without intending to do it.
We bring you a list of 20 cultural faux pas to avoid while travelling.
Do not chew, spit, import, or even think about gum while in Singapore. Since 1992, it has been illegal to be in possession of gum unless for medicinal reasons.
Not only is it a dirty habit, but it can make the sidewalk look bad, too. The fine is hefty. If you are caught spitting out your gum in public or having it without a legitimate reason, you will receive a fine comparable to over $5,000 USD. Yes – they take it that seriously in Singapore. Don’t put yourself in an awkward social faux pas which can get you into serious trouble.
2. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabians do not take kindly to tourists or even locals breaking their laws. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a royal family who is strictly Muslim.
Eating or smoking in public during Ramadan is strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia. Ramadan is an Islamic celebration. Don’t think about public displays of affection. Even if it is not Ramadan, Saudi Arabia strictly prohibits public displays of affections. It could land you in jail or force you to leave the country in shame.
To be clear, we’re talking about the country not the state. Georgia is one of the many countries that border Russia in case you didn’t know. Talking or drinking during a toast is considered to be very rude in Georgia.
As a general rule, try not to talk when someone else is talking, especially when you are travelling overseas. You will probably tick off your host and fellow guests. Just keep quiet and keep your mouth off your glass until you see other people sipping. It will keep you from committing this faux pas.
Make sure to get your geography right. Ireland is famous for their beer, rowdy citizens, and being an independent country. One sure fire way to piss of a citizen of Ireland is to refer to Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
…It hasn’t been for quite some time. Northern Ireland is still a part of the British Isles, though. In fact, tensions between Northern Ireland and Ireland have been tumultuous in the past. Adding fuel to the flame will make you commit a cultural faux pas and probably land you in an awkward situation.
This next one isn’t so much a cultural faux pas as it is a guide to survival. When travelling to Mexico here is one simple tip: don’t drink the water.
It’s not just skipping the water. Make sure to skip ice in your drinks. Also skip any foods that need to be washed, (fruits, vegetables, etc.). Mexican people have naturally adapted to the water, but travelers have not. You will probably be safe at a resort, as they purify their water onsite. If you consume the water, you may face the dreaded, “Montezuma’s Revenge” where you basically puke and poo water for the rest of the trip.
Not tipping in the United States for a service is considered rude. Wait staff in the US tend to survive mostly on tips. However, in several countries around the world skipping the tip is not as rude as it is in the United States.
Most countries find the tip appreciated but not customary. In Japan, on the other hand, it might seem rude. Excellent manners and service are the cultural norm, so your gratitude and repeat business is the only tip they need.In Italy, if you tip you are implying that the owner doesn’t pay their employees enough. Examples of other places where tipping is not required are: China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Australia, and parts of the United Kingdom.
7. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia again makes our list. Saudi Arabia is not a country that is known for its tolerance – about anything. In fact, Saudi Arabia has some of the world’s strictest and harshest laws on drug and alcohol consumption.
There is not a single legal place to purchase alcohol in Saudi Arabia. Visitors are strictly prohibited from bring drugs, pills, and alcohol into the country. If you are caught with these illegal items, you may be fined, jailed, and publicly beat. To avoid the harsh punishment, leave anything questionable at home.
The middle finger is a silent way to tell someone to f&%# off in the United States. Other countries have their own versions of the “middle finger”.
For instance, giving the old “thumbs up” to anyone is considered to be an extremely lewd gesture. Instead of giving the thumbs up, just do nothing. Iran is another country with constantly changing regimes. Depending on who is in charge, you may be faced with different punishments just for giving the thumbs up. It is probably best to keep your hands at your side.
In Italy, the Catholic church is big. While Vatican City is not a part of Italy, the pull of the church can be felt throughout the country.
If you find yourself in one of the beautiful churches or basilicas, make sure to dress appropriately. Men and women both are expected to cover their shoulders and chests when entering a church. Not doing so is considered to be extremely disrespectful.
Eating habits tend to vary dramatically from country to country. In the United States, there really aren’t general rules for finishing your food – unless you had parents who wouldn’t let you leave the table without finishing your plate.
In Spain for instance, you are expected to finish your food…all of it. Not finishing your plate is considered rude to your host or chef. In order to avoid this faux pas, finish your food and do not order more food than you think you can finish.
Like Spain, Japan also has rules on dining etiquette. While it won’t land you in jail or publicly beaten, rudeness is not a good look, especially while travelling.
If you find yourself in Japan enjoying the cuisine, make sure not to clean your whole plate if you are full. Clearing your plate signifies to the host that you need more food. Your host will then bring you more food. If you are full, leave a little bit left on your plate. Not touching a new plate that is brought to you also looks rude to your host.
Coffee, lattes, and cappuccinos are big in Italy. Cappuccinos, especially, are important, because they originated in Italy.
In Italy, you will not be able to order a cappuccino after 10am. Tying to order one is considered a faux pas and will probably mark you as a tourist. Starbucks is planning to open their very first shop in Italy. There is no word whether you will able to get a cappuccino from them after 10am. If you want to avoid side stares from locals, avoid this faux pas.
13. China & Japan
In case you live under a rock, not every culture uses fork to transport food from their plates into their mouths. Asian countries like China and Japan, use predominantly chopsticks.
Some restaurants will have forks on hand to accommodate tourists. Most restaurants only carry chopsticks, so it is best to know the proper etiquette. For instance, sticking your chopsticks straight into your food is inappropriate as it means that the food is an offering for the deceased. If you are having trouble using the chopsticks, make sure you don’t stab the sticks into your food and never use your chopsticks to point. It is considered bad etiquette.
Whether its stepping over friends at a sleepover or navigating through crowded rows of packed bleachers full of people, most of us have probably stepped over legs and people to get to our destination.
In Nepal, however, it is considered very rude to step over someone’s body or even just their legs. It is preferred that you walk around in order to avoid this cultural faux pas. Stepping over people is generally an uncomfortable situation anyway, so just avoid it altogether when visiting Nepal.
Sometimes being angry can be overwhelming. Driving during rush hour traffic can lead to angry confrontations. Flipping the middle finger in America or the “inverse peace sign” in the United Kingdom can speak volumes (thanks for the embarrassing moment former President Richard Nixon).
In Greece, they have their own unique way to tell you to go to hell. Showing someone your outstretched palm is considered to be very rude and vulgar. The palm gesture can mean a slew of things, so it is best to avoid showing someone your palm in an angry manner.
Austria is not only infamous as being the birthplace of, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but manners are a big deal here as well. When travelling to Austria, remember to be polite.
In Austria that means you shake everyone’s hand when entering a room full of people. Not shaking someone’s hand is considered rude, and it may indicate that you do not find them favorable. Avoid this faux pas by shaking everyone’s hand.
17. India & the Middle East
In many parts of the world including the United States, you were probably taught from birth that you should always shake with the right hand.
In India, the Middle East, and other parts of the world, the right hand is strictly used for hand shaking, eating, and touching things. The left hand is considered unclean. The primary reason is because the left hand is used for…cleaning up unclean parts of you. In some places, you use your left hand to wipe yourself. This one is not only a cultural faux pas, it can also lead to diseases, excessive hand washing, and followed by bouts of cringing.
Dining faux pas make this list several times. After all, enjoying cuisine of a foreign country is often at the top of everyone’s list.
In certain areas, like the Middle East and Africa, it is acceptable and preferred to eat with your hands. In Germany, always eat with a fork except maybe bread. Everything else, be on the side of caution and pick up a fork to avoid making a faux pas.
Communicating in a foreign land can be tricky, especially if you communicate in a completely different way in your home country. In the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries nodding your head up and down means yes. Shaking from side to side means no.
In Bulgaria, on the other hand, the head movements are reversed. Shaking you head left to right is yes in this country. Likewise, nodding up and down means no.
In order to be a well-mannered traveler, you want to make sure not to offend the culture. You especially want to be careful in times of stress. If you find yourself in Russia, make sure to throw back your vodka. Sipping is considered rude.
Also, it may seem weird, but make sure to give someone an odd number flowers for everyday flower giving purposes. An even number of flowers means that you are giving someone flowers for a funeral. Make sure to smell AND count the roses while in Russia.