10 Cultural Faux Pas to Avoid While Visiting 10 Countries

Steer clear of these common cultural mistakes on your next trip.

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterJan. 25, 2016
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterJan. 25, 2016, at 3:33 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

10 Cultural Faux Pas to Avoid While Visiting 10 Countries

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Thai well-wishers sing the Thai national anthem as they gather at Siriraj Hospital on December 5, 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand.
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(Getty Images)

Faux Pas #10: Touching someone's head or disrespecting nobility in Thailand.

When it comes to etiquette in Thailand, the key to showing respect is understanding that the head is sacred and that feet are unclean, Clark says. She stresses the importance of refraining from pointing at feet or having physical contact of any kind with some someone else's head. It's also a smart idea to resist passing any items over someone's head, she says. Another important custom to understanding that "everyone has extreme reverence for the king," she says. "No matter where you are (in the middle of a park, at the movie theater, on the Skytrain), stop what you're doing and stand in silence when his song or the Thai national anthem are played," she advises. "And do not even jokingly insult him – it's grounds for imprisonment."
Woman blowing bubble gum at tailgate barbecue.
Credit

(Getty Images)

Faux Pas #9: Smuggling bubblegum into Singapore.

If you ever considered popping, chewing or carrying bubblegum in Singapore – think again. "Bubblegum was outlawed in Singapore in 1992 after vandals caused repeated maintenance issues throughout the country by trashing sidewalks, sealing keyholes and even disrupting the public transit by jamming subway doors with wads of the adhesive treat," Saglie explains. By law, visitors are banned from carrying gum into the country, even by accident, he says. The crime is punishable by a fine of up to $3,000, and pharmacists caught selling the illicit snack face up to two years in jail. To better blend in with locals, "burp, slurp and smack your lips," Clark says, pointing out that Singaporeans view these gestures as a sign of gratitude for delicious meals.

A primer on surprising etiquette rules in 10 countries.

Chewing bubblegum. Purchasing souvenirs with pennies. Throwing a fist in the air. These gestures may seem completely harmless, but in certain corners of the globe, not only could you embarrass yourself by committing these gaffes, you can also face a harsh penalty for breaking the law. And while even the most seasoned of travelers can unintentionally commit common social errors abroad, it's important to remember that travel is not only about exploring exciting destinations, it's also about gaining a heightened understanding of diverse cultures, customs and perspectives. With that in mind, here are surprisingly offensive cultural blunders in 10 popular destinations – and how to avoid making them.

Faux Pas #1: Dining in transit and pouring your own drink in Japan.

"There are definitely more than a few potential faux pas that travelers to Japan can unwittingly make," says Colleen Clark, managing editor of Jetsetter.com. The first major social sin she highlights is eating or drinking on the train, and the second is opening your own taxi door. "Do not try to open or close a taxi door. The driver will remotely open the left rear door for you to enter and then will close it after you depart," she says. And speaking of dining etiquette, "It's taboo to pour one’s own drink, and party-goers make sure to fill the cups of elders first. The same respectful custom is appropriate in Japan where the gesture shows generosity and companionship among drinking buddies," says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo.com.

Another unsuspectingly disrespectful behavior in Japan is pointing your chopsticks upright into your rice bowl, which can be interpreted by Buddhists as offering rice to the dead.

Faux Pas #2: Blowing your nose in public and sporting shoes in homes and sacred places in China.

It may seem unusual, but in China it's considered very rude to take out a tissue and blow your nose in public, especially while sitting down for a meal. But the major cultural sin to steer clear of is neglecting to take off your shoes, Clark says. "Your feet can cause you trouble in China. Remove your shoes before you enter anyone's home (or a temple), and when sitting, be sure not to deliberately show the bottom of your feet to others," she explains. One more social activity to refrain from: equating China to Japan. "It's like comparing NY to LA or the Beatles to the Stones … but with several centuries more of a rivalry," she says.

Faux Pas #3: Neglecting to follow standard meal and language etiquette practices in France.

In France, instead of savoring bread prior to your main course, it's considered a better practice to pair it with different entrees, especially cheeses. Your bread should also be placed directly on the table, rather than a separate plate. Also resist sharing your final tab with your travel companions – it's considered to be an unrefined practice in at French establishments, where the norm is for one person to take care of the bill. And apart from practicing the proper form while dining, it's also essential to be polite by speaking the local language. "Always say, 'Bonjour' (to shopkeepers, strangers, restaurant hosts), avoid speaking too loudly and never, we repeat, never ask for your steak well done," Clark says. "Oh, and don’t put butter on your croissant – it's made of butter," she jokes.

Faux Pas #4: Wearing revealing clothing (including swimsuits) or showing public displays of affection in the United Arab Emirates.

"Dubai can be a place of mixed messages, and messing up can mean deportation," Clark says. While you're allowed to drink in hotels, keep in mind "drunk driving and public drunkenness are strictly forbidden," she says. Unlike the U.S., consuming alcohol or being under the influence of alcohol in public is a punishable offense and can result in being charged for drinking without a license in Dubai. Clark also cautions against any PDA. "You should also never offer your hand to an Arab woman unless she offers it first," she adds. Saglie also warns that in Muslim countries, showing skin is highly offensive.

Faux Pas #5: Paying with pennies in Canada.

Next time you plan a trip to the Great White North, you may want to refrain from collecting or using pennies. As the copper coin's value continues to diminish and the Royal Canadian Mint halted distributing pennies to financial centers after February 2013, some retailers will not accept the currency or will require that you round up the final cost to the closest 5-cent increment. Beyond limiting your penny payments, it's also important to stay courteous to blend in, Clark says. "Our neighbors to the north generally live up to their reputation for niceness, so to return the favor you should be sure to be on time, politely request items around the dinner table and mind your Ps and Qs," she adds.

Faux Pas #6: Breaking tacit coffee-culture rules and baring midriff in Italy.

If you want to blend in with the locals in Italy, make sure you follow simple ordering etiquette before getting your caffeine fix. "Never order a cappuccino after 10:30 [a.m.] (milk is considered filling and should only be consumed at breakfast)," Clark says. She also cautions to avoid drinking coffee over a meal. "You can also be charged different prices depending on how you want to consume your drink – most expensive to sit at a table, cheaper to stand at the counter, cheapest to take it to go." She also points out that it's important to resist the urge to eat while you explore can't-miss attractions. "Meals are meant to be savored sitting down, not while walking," she says.

And before you make your way to iconic sights, Saglie points out that "Catholic cathedrals and basilicas throughout Italy and Vatican City strictly enforce a strict dress code for all visitors." To ensure you're able to visit sacred sights, he advises sporting clothing that shields the shoulders, skirts and dresses that go past the knee and, for women, a shawl to wrap around sleeveless blouses in the summertime. He also cautions against showing midriffs to avoid disrespect and to ensure you're allowed to enter religion sights.

Faux Pas #7: Making offensive hand gestures in Brazil and the U.K.

"Tame your hand gestures in Brazil," Clark says, pointing out that seemingly innocuous gestures such as raising your fist can signal to a man that his wife is cheating on him. Another offensive practice is putting your fist to your forehead, which signals that you believe someone is stupid. Saglie also suggests resisting raising two fingers to friends overseas. While this universal sign represents "peace out" in the U.S., "Try the same with your chaps in the U.K., and you could find yourself in a street fight," Saglie says. "Americans don't realize extending the pointer finger into a reversed peace sign has the same meaning across the pond as a middle finger on its own."

Faux Pas #8: Incorrectly greeting locals and wearing the wrong shoes to ancient sites in Greece.

In Greece, you can expect greetings to entail more physical contact than standard greetings in the U.S. "Hugging and kissing go together," Clark says. "If you greet someone with a hug, be prepared to also kiss on the cheek." Apart from mastering proper greetings, make sure to dress correctly before making the pilgrimage to famed attractions. In fact, some ancient sites, such as the Acropolis, have restricted visitors from wearing high heels to keep cherished treasures intact.

Faux Pas #9: Smuggling bubblegum into Singapore.

If you ever considered popping, chewing or carrying bubblegum in Singapore – think again. "Bubblegum was outlawed in Singapore in 1992 after vandals caused repeated maintenance issues throughout the country by trashing sidewalks, sealing keyholes and even disrupting the public transit by jamming subway doors with wads of the adhesive treat," Saglie explains. By law, visitors are banned from carrying gum into the country, even by accident, he says. The crime is punishable by a fine of up to $3,000, and pharmacists caught selling the illicit snack face up to two years in jail. To better blend in with locals, "burp, slurp and smack your lips," Clark says, pointing out that Singaporeans view these gestures as a sign of gratitude for delicious meals.

Faux Pas #10: Touching someone's head or disrespecting nobility in Thailand.

When it comes to etiquette in Thailand, the key to showing respect is understanding that the head is sacred and that feet are unclean, Clark says. She stresses the importance of refraining from pointing at feet or having physical contact of any kind with some someone else's head. It's also a smart idea to resist passing any items over someone's head, she says. Another important custom to understanding that "everyone has extreme reverence for the king," she says. "No matter where you are (in the middle of a park, at the movie theater, on the Skytrain), stop what you're doing and stand in silence when his song or the Thai national anthem are played," she advises. "And do not even jokingly insult him – it's grounds for imprisonment."
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Liz Weiss, Staff Writer

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of ...  Read more

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