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.