An American man decides it’s time to see the world. Within a week, he’s in a foreign country and he’s already been invited by a local in that country to share a homecooked meal with his family. Three hours into that meal, he’s as happy as a man can be. Meanwhile, he’s unknowingly been raining insults down on his hosts. Can that happen? As you’ll see today, yes, it can. A lot of people breach a taboo in foreign countries just as soon as they enter a person’s house.
Why? Because they don’t take their shoes off. In some countries, such as the UK, it’s fine and dandy to just waltz into someone’s house with your shoes on, at least if your shoes are clean. Sure, some people might ask if they should take them off, but you won’t upset your hosts if you don’t. As a general rule of thumb, when you’re in Asia never mind which country, it will be seen as rude if you just enter an abode with your shoes on. Your hosts will likely not know it’s not a custom in your country, so you will come across as ill-mannered.
This show isn’t just entertainment, it’s a lesson for you that can make global travel that much easier. In most of Europe, you can probably keep your shoes on, although the person who owns the house may have a policy about that, and it goes without saying that if your shoes are caked in mud, you take them off. In Eastern Europe, it’s different. Most countries have a shoes-off policy. We’re not going to mention each and every nation, but just bear in mind that outside much of Europe and North America, taking your shoes off is not a choice.
You’ll be expected to take them off. As we learned when traveling in Asia, it pays not to have holes in your socks in these countries. Now for something you really wouldn’t have known. In Russia, you should take off your shoes when entering a house. But one other thing we learned about this country is you should also take off your gloves before you shake someone’s hand.
Apparently, it’s a sign of disrespect if you don’t take them off. It makes sense if you think about it. Gloves get dirt on them, while bare hands are kept pristine under the gloves. Also in Russia, once you’ve taken off your shoes and gloves, you still shouldn’t shake hands if you are standing on the threshold of a doorway.
You’re not supposed to shake or embrace until you are inside the house. Why? A travel company we found said Russians, likely just some Russians, see this as bad luck. Let’s say you want to make the best impression in Russia and so you’ve brought some flowers with you. Maybe you picked up a dozen roses before you went to the house.
That could actually go the wrong way for you, because the word on the street is an even number of flowers are given when the occasion is a sad one, such as a funeral. For a happy occasion, you should go with an odd number.
This sounds a little superstitious, but people all over the world still embrace superstitions. It usually depends where you are in the country, though. Take Thailand, for instance. People who live in a swanky neighborhood in Bangkok might have different beliefs from people who, say, live in a small village in the mountains in northern Thailand.
In that country, when you meet new people, you generally stay hands-off. People “wai” each other, like giving the prayer sign, but you generally don’t maul a new person, and you certainly don’t kiss strangers on the cheek.
This could happen in some parts of Bangkok, though. But in most of Thailand, you just don’t touch people very much when you first meet them. Men certainly don’t get touchy with women in a formal greeting situation. If you did this, you’d look a bit like an animal.
And if there are older people around, you should show some respect. You will often see younger folks walking past older people with a slightly bent posture. That’s because they don’t want to loom over them. Remember in this country the head is a very important part of the body. You certainly shouldn’t grab someone’s head if you don’t know them well. This could go down very, very badly.
The feet are the lowest part of the body, so you should never point them at people’s heads. Rude tourists have been called out in Thailand for putting their feet up on the backs of others’ chairs, sometimes on seats in minibusses. This might not seem like a big deal to you, but it will make you look like a real pig.
Tourists still do it all the time. They also make out in public, which again, is a big taboo in Thailand. Thais save that stuff for the privacy of their own homes. No one will deny you a peck on the cheek at the airport when you say goodbye to your lover, but tongues down throats in the street will remind Thais of “soi” dogs stuck together during mating.
In some parts of the Middle East, you can actually get in trouble for kissing in public. This is what a lawyer in Dubai wrote, “Public displays of affection, as well as sexual harassment or randomly addressing women in public places, is liable to be punished by imprisonment or deportation.” We’re not kidding. In 2009, a British couple served three years in prison after being caught kissing in public.
After that, they were both deported. Instead of hearing the words, “Get a room” you might hear instead “Go to jail.” In many countries in Africa showing affection in public is also a big no-no, but each country is different. On a radio show in South Africa called Cape Talk, they had a call in about public displays of affection, aka, PDAs.
Most people were ok with it, even though many callers said it just makes them feel lonely because they’re single. As we said, how it is accepted or not accepted in Africa changes between each country. In most places where it’s not acceptable, you’ll just get some funny looks and not a jail sentence, but you don’t want people thinking you’re animalistic.
We tend to think Northern Europeans and North Americans have fewer taboos. It’s true that when visiting, say Canada or Scotland or the Netherlands, you’ll likely have less chance of upsetting someone by accident because you breached a local taboo. Still, in those countries, you shouldn’t eat right off your knife.
This is fine in some nations. According to Steven Pinker in his book “The Better Angels Of Our Nature”, the reason Europeans stopped eating off their knife back in the day was simply that the continent went through what he calls a civilizing process. Knives were what people killed with, not for wielding at the dinner table.
Table manners are a big thing all over Europe. In many countries, you’ll also be expected not to rest your elbows on the table. This and not eating from your knife might seem like common sense to many of you, but in many parts of the world, it’s totally fine to do it. It’s the same with slurping your food.
Try doing that in most countries, and you’ll elicit some funny stares, but in China, you see and hear people doing that all the time. It’s also ok in Japan. But be warned people who like slurping, it is really NOT ok in most countries. The reason why some countries are good with slurping is the noise shows appreciation of the food. In India and some other countries in Asia, you’ll also see people eating with their right hand only.
This is because the left hand is generally seen as the hand that gets dirty when doing the cleaning, especially cleaning yourself when you’ve been to the bathroom for a poop. In that country, and again lots of Asian nations, don’t hog your food as if you think everyone has just one plate. It might feel weird at first, but when you are dining with Asians, the food is often all shareable.
It usually just keeps on coming, too, so don’t think it will run out. We read a story of an English guy that went out with a young South East Asian woman and her mom and pop. Yes, that can happen even during the first stages of dating. After all, the parents want to know you’re a decent kind of guy.
The parents treated him as is the norm because they were the elders. But this English dude, to be polite, kept finishing his plate. He’d grown up believing it was rude to leave anything. But the parents kept ordering more. That’s because for them it was rude not to leave the table with lots of unfinished dishes on it.
This showed they were not stingy. But in this case, the English man ended up feeling like he was going to explode like Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. If only both parties had learned about each other’s customs and taboos. But it gets worse than that. Another thing in Asia that you shouldn’t do, is when you’re eating with chopsticks, you shouldn’t stick them into the food.
It not only looks a bit ugly, but those sticks will look like incense sticks. That reminds people of how food is offered to the dead. As for how you dress in Asia, you’d think it would be common sense to know that informal places you don’t wear informal clothes. It’s a sign of respect to dress correctly.
Yes, it should be obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t do it. For instance, in most religious places in Asia, women shouldn’t show their bare shoulders. Asia is starting to sound rather strict, but this next taboo in a country in Europe sounds rather hardcore, too. We are talking about Spain and the fact that when you are there you shouldn’t stretch or yawn in public.
According to a website giving advice on doing business in Spain, it is considered vulgar. Ouch. We guess exposing that meat stuck in your jagged teeth might not look great, but when a person’s gotta yawn they gotta yawn. Over in France, you’d think there would be lots of social taboos.
After all, the French invented the term “faux pas”, meaning false step, usually relating to a social situation. The French, like many European cultures, tend not to ask personal questions when in conversation with someone they’ve just met. You shouldn’t ask about age, their job, money, or marriage. This might seem obvious to lots of you, but again, head over to Asia, and these kinds of questions will hit you from all sides.
People there just want to get to know you, so they know your social status. But in France, those kinds of questions are generally taboo. It’s also taboo in France to flaunt your wealth in conversation, so unlike in some Asian nations where that’s fine because it shows your social standing, the French might think you’re crass for trying to look rich. Now let’s talk about hand signals.
For the French, when someone makes the zero signal with their finger and thumb, it can mean worthless. For Americans, it can mean the opposite, and telling someone everything is just A-ok. So, be careful where you do this sign because you might just be telling them that what they have done for you is not great but absolutely terrible. As for getting yourself in big trouble, give someone the V-sign in certain nations. It’s thought this sign as an insult, with the palm facing inwards, originated in Britain.
It means the same as when the Americans use the middle finger. But in Britain, as well as new Zealand, Ireland, India, and Australia, it is a pretty harsh insult and could get you into some serious trouble in the wrong parts of town.
The Brits like to say people started doing this back in the 16th century or so as a sign to their French enemy. The legend has it that the British soldiers had some great archers, so, when the French caught them, they chopped off their middle fingers so they couldn’t pull back the string of the blow.
Showing the French those fingers then became a sign of disrespect. There’s no evidence that this is true, but it sounds cool. Most people from other nations wouldn’t give the sign anyway, but it’s seen as cute in countries such as South Korea and Japan. That could get someone into trouble, although it’s highly unlikely any Brit would take offense at a K-pop fan wielding their two fingers while on vacation.
They also usually do it with the palm turned outwards, which is a sign of victory for Brits. It’s the same with the thumbs-up gesture. In some countries, it tells someone a job has been done well, but it denotes an offense in other nations. In parts of the Middle East, sticking your thumb up like that can mean the same as giving someone the bird.
That’s why when you are hitchhiking in a country such as Israel, you’d be a lot better off holding out your hand with your thumb pointing downwards. Do it the other way, and someone might just get angry with you.
We haven’t talked about South America much, so now let’s head in that direction. In Brazil, it’s supposed to be ok to be a little bit late when you have an appointment with someone, at least when it’s an informal occasion. Like many countries in the world, you don’t have to arrive somewhere right on the dot. This can infuriate ex-pats who’ve moved to a country where punctuality isn’t taken all that seriously.
Apparently, the most punctual countries in the world are Switzerland and Germany, while Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico, and China don’t have so many demands on punctuality. Sticking with Brazil, if you are heavily mocking in conversation, it might not go down too well. Tearing into people or being really sarcastic might be just a natural part of life in countries such as the US and the UK, but Brazilians we are told prefer a more light-hearted approach to chit-chat.
As for tipping, that’s done kind of religiously in the USA, but if you tip in Japan, it might be considered rude. It’s like offering charity to someone who thinks they don’t need it. You also don’t generally tip in most small restaurants or cafes in non-western countries, especially if you are eating street food or paying for a haircut or a taxi. Then again, in some countries where people don’t generally tip, it might be different if they are staying at a plush hotel or eating at an expensive restaurant.
For instance, in Cambodia or Vietnam, there wasn’t much of a tipping culture until posh restaurants catering to tourists and wealthy locals opened up.
At the end of the day, people are generally tolerant of your taboo-breaking wherever you go because they will know you are a foreigner and might not understand local customs. You should probably just make sure you know the rules concerning greeting, eating, and touching people.
You might also hold back on being loud, kissing in public, and cursing, but that should be obvious. Now you need to watch “Weirdest Sex Customs Around The World.” Or, have a look at “American Behaviors Considered Rude In Other Countries.” Let us know in the comments!