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14 ‘Normal’ Things Americans Do That May Be Rude When Abroad

Getting ready for a trip takes a lot of preparation — whether it is going just across county lines or to an entirely different country.

Between all of the packing and sightseeing plans that many wade through before leaving, one of the most important parts of traveling is oft-overlooked: becoming familiar with a country’s customs.

Reading up about the country you’re going to doesn’t just mean memorizing how to say “hello” or “goodbye”—it also means you need to know what topics and gestures are acceptable. You may, for example, do something that is commonplace in America, but is extremely offensive elsewhere. After all, when you visit a new country, half of the experience is learning and adapting to foreign customs.

1. Hugging

When you’re greeting someone in a foreign country, it’s better to be safe than sorry. A handshake is usually the safest bet, but if you’re a serial hugger, make sure to especially refrain from doing so in China (including Hong Kong), India and Japan.

2. Putting your hands in your pockets

You may think putting your hands in your pockets is just a comfortable way to stand, but many cultures find it rude. These countries include:

  • – Austria
  • – Belgium
  • – Mexico
  • – Netherlands
  • – Poland
  • – Russia
  • – South Africa
  • – Switzerland
  • – Thailand
  • – Ukraine

3. PDA

If you’re traveling with a significant other, save the PDA for…somewhere out of the public eye. In some countries, contact between opposite genders is very taboo. Even something as innocent as hand-holding can be considered crossing the line. PDA is generally offensive in the UK, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Singapore, Thailand, Uganda, Qatar and Indonesia. Touching other people in general is to be avoided in China, Austria, Denmark, Japan, South Africa, South Korea and Indonesia.

4. Eye contact

Direct eye contact. A basic instinct, right? Not in every culture. In America, making eye contact with someone is a sign of respect and mutual understanding; in South Korea, Japan and Indonesia, it’s considered rude—especially towards those older or in a superior position to you.

5. Making a ‘peace’ sign

You may be thinking that a peace sign is the international sign for goodwill around the world—after all, people in some East Asian countries flash peace signs in pictures. But if you haphazardly do a peace sign backwards (palm facing you) in the UK, Australia or New Zealand, it’s comparable to flicking someone off.

6. Touching someone else’s head

When interacting with children, you might instinctively want to pat them on the head. It’s an affectionate gesture in America. In countries where people are predominantly Buddhist though, it can be extremely inappropriate. The head is considered to be a sacred place (where the spirit lives), so having someone invade that private space is too personal. Countries where the head is off limits include Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia.

7. Making an ‘OK’ sign

In Turkey and Greece, flashing someone the “OK” sign means that you believe that person to be homosexual. In Brazil and Argentina, it’s akin to telling someone to shove off.

8. Pointing with your index finger

Pointing at someone you know in America is usually not a big deal (though usually pointing at strangers is not considered polite). It’s considered especially insulting, though, in:

  • – Chile
  • – China
  • – Hong Kong
  • – Hungary
  • – Indonesia
  • – Iran
  • – Italy
  • – Kuwait
  • – Lebanon
  • – Netherlands
  • – Russia
  • – Singapore
  • – South Korea
  • – Thailand

In many African countries — Botswana in particular — pointing with your index is usually reserved for inanimate objects.

9. Showing the bottom of your feet

Former President George W. Bush was famously hit with a shoe by a Iraqi man at a press conference, which is a grave insult in Arab culture. This is because feet and shoes are often dirty, so this gesture would mean that the person is lower than low. Other cultures also share this view, and it’s therefore considered offensive to show someone else the bottoms of your feet. These include Russia, Singapore and many Southeast Asian countries (Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia).

10. Sitting with your legs crossed

Attention, ladies: Though you may find sitting with your legs crossed quite comfortable, it’s a rude gesture in Egypt, Ghana, Korea, Thailand and Indonesia.

11. Giving a thumbs up

Another taboo in Arab culture is giving a thumbs up, as is in Germany, Argentina and Nigeria. To you it’s a positive gesture—overseas, it’s the equivalent to giving someone the middle finger.

12. Yawning

It’s usually a good measure to always cover your mouth when you yawn, but when in France or Belgium, make especially sure to hide your yawn from others in public if you can help it.

13. Using your left hand

Sorry, lefties. In many African and Middle Eastern countries, giving someone something, especially a gift, is usually only done with the right hand. In many countries the left hand is considered unclean, and in the Qur’an, Satan was supposedly left-landed.

14. Smiling

American tourists have a reputation of being friendly and constantly positive, and in Russia, this is seen by some as a fault . This isn’t to say that you cannot smile at all when you’re there, but avoid smiling unless you truly mean it, and not just as a courtesy. In Russia, smiling too much may be regarded as insincere.

WanderBat used their etiquette by country data to find out where these 14 casual American gestures are not acceptable. The data doesn’t cover every corner of the Earth, so there may be some countries that are missing from these lists!

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

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