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Cultural Etiquette: Perfectly Normal Habits That Can Get You in Trouble Overseas

It’s all so perfectly normal, don’t you think?

You line up for a taxi at the airport and smile at the father and daughter next to you. Pop a stick of gum into your mouth while you wait. Pat the man’s child on the head.

You wouldn’t think twice about these everyday actions, would you?

Maybe you should. Depending where you are, these perfectly normal habits and gestures could land you in trouble and insult those around you.

Let me explain…

Common Cultural Etiquette Mistakes

Patting a child on the head: too close to the Gods?

In some traditions the head is considered the purest, most sacred part of the body because it is the highest, the closest to the Gods. This is especially true in Bali, Laos and Thailand. So please, refrain from the urge to ruffle a child’s hair and if you catch yourself too late, apologize. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for damaging someone’s soul, would you?

Image by quinn.anya

Pointing your feet, the devil’s work

Just as the head is the most sacred end of the body, the feet are the most unclean, in some cases ‘devilish’. So don’t cross your legs and avoid tempting the devil by showing off the bottoms of your feet. This stands true in Thailand, but also in a large chunk of Asia and parts of the Middle East. Think about it. You walk through mud, garbage, oil and other people’s dirt all day. How would you like to have that staring you in the face?

Speaking of shoes – off or on?

What can be more normal than crossing the threshold and walking into a friend’s house? I remember northern Canada in winter: when entering a house you first removed your shoes. The option was to trek snow and slush into the living room. The shoe removal rule applies to parts of Russia. And large bits of Asia. And huge swathes of eastern and northern Europe. You may not like it, but it’s the hosts’ call. Hate the whole routine? Slip your own indoor shoes or sandals into your bag before leaving home. And if you see a bunch of shoes piled up just inside the door – that’s a hint.

Image by anokarina

Pointing a finger, and other equivocal gestures

Another thing. If you weren’t raised in a family that frowned on pointing, especially at people, get used to controlling that wayward index finger. Pointing can be considered aggressive or downright rude in so many countries that it’s best to play it safe and avoid it altogether.

Image by Potatojunkie

If something’s good, you’ll give the A-OK sign, right? Index finger touching the tip of your thumb, creating a perfect circle? Three remaining fingers casually in the air?

Sit on those hands!

At best, you’re telling an Asian you want three of something. At worst, you’re calling someone a body part you wouldn’t mention in polite company but that you regularly sit on.

Image by mahalie

Equally confusing is the much-loved and quaint peace sign, or the V of victory. Turn your palm towards your face instead of outwards and you may be inciting the British to riot. In effect you’re telling them to go off… and do something to themselves. How terribly rude.

So it might be a good idea to handcuff those overactive hands behind your back because your friendly gesture may have just insulted someone’s mother. Since so many hand gestures can be misconstrued, it’s always good to look at how others use their own hands before flailing in with your wagging, wiggling digits.

Don’t be a leftie at brekkie

If you’re left-handed you may need to heed your habits in the Middle East and South Asia, where eating with the left is considered – oh so gauche. In fact, it’s downright unacceptable, since that’s the hand you use in the bathroom. No need to say more.

Chewing gum in Singapore

This is an oddball and unless you’ve been living under a rock you know it’s illegal to chew gum in Singapore. Spit gum, I understand. Stick gum under furniture, I super-get. But chew? Nuff said. Just keep those gums calm.

Image by Yaizel

Look me in the eye

I’ve always heard that looking someone in the eye – man or woman – is a sign of directness and honesty. In some Latin or Middle Eastern countries it could mean something very different: a come hither glance, tantamount to taking off your top in the main square.

Direct eye contact can also seem aggressive or disrespectful, especially if you’re staring at someone of supposedly greater importance – like a police officer or border guard.

Image by Alaskan Dude

Speaking of confused gender roles, don’t even think of going Dutch or trying to pay your share of the bill in, say, Turkey. You’re a woman, and a guest, so no self-respecting Turk would let you get away with this. Hospitality reigns.

Raising your voice: a no-no in many places

Admittedly yelling at someone is impolite in most cultures but in Africa (and Asia by the way) it’s downright unacceptable. I learned the hard way – a long story involving a visa, a border and a police station – that anger and yelling (however justified) won’t get you very far. A joke and laughter, on the other hand, will usually work.

Cover up, girl

We don’t want to lose the freedom to choose our clothing but that freedom might have to stop at near-bare butts and deep cleavage. In many countries, dress is a societal dictate, not an individual desire. If you’re unsure just look around you and check how much skin other women are showing.

A final word…

For me, traveling solo is perfectly normal. I backpacked across Africa on my own and not once was my ‘solo status’ considered plausible. I was the object of pity, the recipient of a string of ‘sorrys’ stretching from Zimbabwe to Senegal. In the West a woman on her own is considered independent. In Africa she is merely lonely. Sorry.

So yes, be normal. It’s just that normal isn’t normal everywhere.

Featured image by pinke_olive.

Leyla GirayAbout the author: Leyla Giray is a journalist and development worker with a passion for travel and improving people’s lives in developing countries.

At 43 she made a major decision to reinvent herself and travel the world solo for six months. She was gone three years. She shares her travel knowledge on her website and her book, Women on the Road, encourages women over 40 how to plan and take the trip of their dreams.


  1. Great piece!
    Don’t forget the Greek moutza – palm spread as if demonstrating the number five – and pushed forward. It’s the biggest insult of all, insinuating you are rubbing something not very nice in someone’s face! It’s usually accompanied by an insult.
    So when teaching how to count, make sure for ‘two’ your fingers are closed and for ‘five’, the fingers are not spread and facing towards you, just to be on the safe side!


  2. Heather says:

    Great tips! It’s sooo true that we take some of our gestures for granted, and they can be wildly misinterpreted! when I’m in a different country I try to watch other people and see what they do before I make a fool of myself. Don’t worry though, I still manage to make a fool of myself unexpectedly. It’s part of travelling!

  3. Grizzly Bear Mom says:

    And to hold up your pinkie to a Korean is insulting. I believe its best to just keep your hands to yourself. I’ve lived in Europe and Asian and traveled North and South American, Asian and Europe. I”m sure I’ve made stupid mistakes. However I am unfailingly respectful and polite as I know how to be. That and knowing Sir, Madam, Good morning, please, excuse me, this tastes good, where is the bathroom/train station in the native language goes very far.

  4. Sylvia Ross says:

    The best kind of advice to give all tourists…… many times we have been the ugly American for “not knowing” Thank you.

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