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Do’s and don’ts for traveling abroad

Written by 4 May 2011 9 Comments

When going abroad, I think it is important to be polite and behave according to local customs, but every now and then a blunder happens. Something like giving thumbs up (a don’t in Brazil and the middle east) and waving at your friends with an open palm (in Greece) can be the source of misunderstanding and offend the locals.  After reading an article about foreign etiquette for Americans I realized that after living in Portugal for quite some time, I didn’t know that I was insulting the chef by asking for salt and pepper. On the other hand, Germans seem to freely blow their nose even during a meal, which is something I’m still not quite comfortable with. Here are some of the most important and funny lessons I know:

Asia: Never point at something with your feet, and don’t show of the palm of your feet to anyone. If you accidentally touch someone with “the lowest part of your body” apologize by touching the persons arm and then your head with your hand.

Japan: I always found it a bit weird that the Japanese tend to go around with sterilized hospital masks, even when going to clean and safe places. Actually, they do not use it just to protect themselves, even when having a slight cold they will put it on to protect others from their germs. Oh, and in Japan never fill your own glass with alcoholic beverages – wait for your neighbor to fill it up. And don’t worry about slurping your noodels, just make sure you don’t leave the chopsticks into a bowl of rice upright, because that’t the way it is offered to the dead.

Photo: Claude Estebe (CC)

India, Sri-Lanka, Middle East: Be aware of what you use your left hand for. Symbolically the left hand is often considered unclean, and handing over gifts or eating with this hand can leave people to think you’re trying to offend them or that you’re dirty and impolite.

– Russia: You should never give an even number of flowers to someone, this is seen as an invitation to death since this is a funeral custom. Make sure you count your flowers first! I heard this is the case for several countries, so if this is the case where you’re from – shout it out!

Photo: _e.t. (CC)

United Kingdom: Even within our little Europe, there are gestures likely to offend in one country in be normal in another. Sticking up your middle finger together with your index finger with your palm facing yourself  in the UK is equal to telling them to go fuck themselves. This is good to remember when ordering to pints of beer.

Thailand: In Thailand, picking your nose when talking to other people is nothing to worry about, it is even considered good hygiene.

Photo: Imperfect Escape (CC)

In order to show some respect and be polite I find it useful to learn a couple of phrases in the local language, “thank you” and “sorry” being among the most important ones. I also try to hold back negative reactions, and rather ask for an explanation or google it later. When preparing for your trip I recommend you to have a glimpse at articles on foreign etiquette and gestures.

Have you had any embarrassing episodes with the locals?

Kathrine Opshaug Bakke Kathrine Opshaug Bakke, editor at Travelettes from 2009 to 2013, wrote this post. Originating from Norway, she has been living in Berlin, Lisbon, and Stockholm the past 6 years.

She loves cities with imperfect facades, photography, traveling by bike, vintage hunting, and everything that comes with cheese. Follow her visual diary at anchoredpaperplane.com.

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  • Kasia said:

    In Poland we have that flower thing too. I mean i don’t even know why (never heard that it has something in common with death) but i was taught that giving an even number of flowers is inelegent. However nobody beside a few grandmas would be really offeneded by that :)

  • Kasia said:

    In Poland we have that flower thing too. I mean i don’t even know why (never heard that it has something in common with death) but i was taught that giving an even number of flowers is inelegent. However nobody beside a few grandmas would be really offeneded by that :)

  • Kirsty said:

    In China, the number 4 is considered to be unlucky, since it has the same pronunciation as death (si). So never, ever give anything in fours!

  • John said:

    The UK is a funny place. You try to greet someone with showing them the “peace sign”, and then all you get is a bollocking!

  • A Lady in London said:

    Great post. It’s amazing how the little things we don’t think about can be so important in how people perceive us when we travel!

  • Laynie said:

    Back in high school, I was a French II student travelling in Paris. After our meal, the waitress came to ask if we wanted dessert. I made the fatal mistake of saying, “Non, merci, je suis pleine.” Big no-no. You see, I literally said “I am full.” But you only use the world “plein” for full when you’re talking about a room or box or something. If you use it on a person, it means “pregnant.” I realized my mistake and corrected it immediately, but not before the waitress had given me a horrified look that raised a bunch of questions with my strictly-anglophone parents. ;)

  • Anna said:

    haha Laynie I made a similar mistake in Denmark. As a German native speaker who has learned Danish but not so much of the everyday-language, I said ‘Nej tak, jeg er fuld’ when offered a second helping, translated (too) directly from German (Nein danke, ich bin voll/satt).. so I basically said that I was drunk!

  • Rafaela said:

    Actually, giving a thumbs up in Brazil is totally normal. It doesn’t have a bad connotation, but the OK sign isn’t such a good idea..

  • kathrine said:

    @Rafaela, thanks for letting us know :) I’ll keep that in mind on my next trip to Brazil.

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