Cultural faux pas around the world

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Cultural Faux Pas Around the World
Cultural Faux Pas Around the World

I’ve mentioned before that I strongly believe when travelling abroad, even for a short time, it’s good to familiarise yourself beforehand with some of the cultural norms and no-no’s, to avoid any cultural faux pas.  I’ve written in depth about some Greek do’s and don’ts – Greek Customs and Etiquette, a slightly tongue in cheek look at what you can expect when you come to Greece, plus Things to Know before travelling to Greece to help you better prepare yourself.
I loved writing these posts, so I thought I’d look further afield at cultural faux pas in other countries worldwide – and I reached out to others who’d be able to give me (and you) some insight.

Without further ado, let’s look at some cultural faux pas around the world and how you can avoid them.

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Arriving Fashionably Late in Mexico – Central America
by
Talek of Travels with Talek

Mexico City by Travels by Talek
Mexico City © Travels with Talek

Let’s kick off with timekeeping.  I know here in Greece, time seems to take on a different concept ie: actually being on time might mean actually being late by our standards.  Turns out it’s not just Greece either:

Travels with Talek: I worked in Mexico for about four years where the friendly people went out of their way to invite me to parties and other events. My first invitation was to a birthday party that started at 7 PM. I was anxious to make a good impression by being punctual. I arrived way early and didn’t want to go in before 7 so I drove around and had coffee until party time.

At precisely 7 PM I grabbed my bottle of wine and rang the doorbell. I was surprised to see the hostess open the door in a bathrobe. She was equally surprised to see me. “Hi, I’m here for the party,” I said with a tentative smile. Did I get the date wrong, I thought? She kindly explained that events don’t really get going until about an hour after the assigned time. From then on, I always arrived fashionably late by about an hour.

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Cheek kissing as a greeting – Southeast Asia
by Inma of A World to Travel

A socially accepted gesture in places like Europe and Latin America, the kiss on the cheek is commonly used as a greeting, a sign of respect, friendship or to congratulate someone. However, there are many other places across the world where this gesture is not common at all.
To give an example of a wide geographic area where the kiss on the cheek can be considered offensive, take for example Southeast Asia, especially the Muslim and Hindu countries. There, the innocent fact that two men or two women kiss is not a socially accepted greeting. And it is for this very same reason that a Southeast Asian man may feel uncomfortable greeting a European woman in this way. But even there, we can find some exceptions: As in Macao and on Celebes Island, cultures influenced by the Portuguese, and in the Philippines, where it is also common.
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BeyondBex: Thanks Inma. This is a good faux pas to point out.

Cover up in Cambodia – Asia
by Jean of Traveling HoneyBird  

cambodia temples photo
It’s hard to believe that Cambodia is a modest Buddhist country. One look at Instagram and you’ll see swarms of young, tanned backpackers in singlet tops, daisy duke shorts and flip flops. Floating around between bars, the beach and temples. Temples you say? So here’s the thing, Cambodia is a rather modest and conservative country despite the hot weather and party atmosphere. The most common cultural faux pax regularly seen is tourists heading into the temple sites in mini shorts, mini skirts and singlet tops. Many of these temples require you to climb up steep stone stairs in order to get the most wonderful views from the top.
And there’s nothing worse than looking up to the next step and getting an eyeful of someone’s vagina, first thing in the morning or at any time of the day actually.
Cultural Faux Pas Around the World - Not covering up
Cultural Faux Pas Around the World – Not covering up
It’s easy to wear small, light weight clothing. When you visit the temples you do need to cover up your shoulders, wear loose pants and cover the knees. One of the most ridiculously fun ways to do this is by buying some local cringe worthy items of clothing such as Thai pants and an elephant print scarf. Your wardrobe will scream tourist, but it’s worthwhile to not insult the community.
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Beyond Bex: Good advise Jean – thanks. Yes, I agree: there’s nothing worse than insulting the local community because you insist on wearing what you want into a sacred environment.  They have the same rules in Greece too.  I do wish people would respect the signs made obvious at the entrances of said places and wrap up.

Don’t smile in Russia!
by Liza of Tripsget 

moscow photo

If you’re planning to visit Russia one day, you should be aware of the fact, that it’s not common to smile in Russia, unless you have a reason for smiling. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Russians never smile and always look like Grinch, who stole Christmas. In a group of friends, they can be friendly and cheerful like any normal people all around the world. They can even smile in public places if there is something worth smiling, e.g. a cute dog or something funny is going on. However, what is totally uncommon in Russia and is considered “weird” is smiling at people you don’t know for absolutely no reason. Some people could actually feel offended or even threatened if a stranger stares and smiles at them. How can someone be offended and threatened by a smile, you might think? Well, the truth is, Russians, especially those from the North and Central Russia, are quite reserved and don’t usually show emotions in public. And constant smiling for them is a sign of either stupidity or even danger (“what is this person is mentally ill and planning something terrible towards me?”). So well, it’s fine to smile if you’re receiving a good service and thanking someone for it, but try to avoid staring and smiling at strangers in Russia.

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BeyondBex: Really interested in this tip!  Who knew that even something such as smiling can cause offence or frowned upon!

Bonjour (and bare foot) in France
by Nadine of Le Long Weekend

paris photo

The word ‘Bonjour’ is more than a simple greeting. To the French it’s an incredibly important social cue. So important, that its absence at the beginning of any encounter will leave a sour impression. But the use of Bonjour isn’t restricted to situations where one would normally use hello or g’day (depending on which part of the world you hail from) its use is far more complex and widespread.

Situations where you might normally avoid eye contact altogether – such as lifts and doctor’s waiting rooms – aren’t immune either (although you don’t have to greet each person individually, a sweeping “Bonjour Madame, Monsieur” will do). And no longer can you get away with a quick smile as a greeting – as Anglophones are wont to do. Basically, if in any doubt, say Bonjour!

Shoes (or the lack of them) are another cultural misdemeanour waiting to happen in France. Where I come from (NZ), it’s common to remove your shoes at home & when visiting other people’s homes. Shoes on (or near) the beach are entirely optional, and jandals are standard summer footwear. Here in France, going barefoot – even at home – is frowned upon. Slippers are, if not mandatory, at least heavily enforced (although I still defiantly resist this rule in my own home, much to my husband’s despair) and jandals are strictly reserved for the beach. I remember once walking back to the car from the beach with my sandy-footed son and the looks I received were nothing short of horrified.

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BeyondBex:
Interesting observation, especially as many cultures like to remove their shoes. Let’s contrast it to this faux pas below:

Going barefoot (or not) in Georgia – Asia
by Audrey of Gumnuts Abroad

Georgian church image © Gumnuts Abroad
Georgian church image © Gumnuts Abroad

You become so focused on other cultures when you travel that it’s easy to forget you have your own. This was driven home to us recently when we were touring some beautiful old churches in the Republic of Georgia with a group of people from Iran.

Iranians are Muslim and it’s common practise in their culture to remove their shoes before entering a mosque. This is done so the carpets inside remain clean, as Muslims place their head and nose on the ground in prayer. This is different to Christian churches where going barefoot is considered disrespectful.

As a Christian, it was natural for me to walk straight into the church without pausing to take my shoes off. And I was surprised to see the shocked look on our new friends’ faces. They found it so odd to leave their shoes on. And it made me smile to see them tip toeing around the church not wanting to leave a speck of dirt behind!

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Cultural Faux Pas Around the World Keep on or remove shoes
Cultural Faux Pas Around the World Keep on or remove shoes

Do serve others in your house in the Netherlands – Europe
by Rachel of Rachel’s Ruminations

Serve the tea to your houseguests in the Netherlands Image © Rachel's Ruminations
Serve the tea to your houseguests in the Netherlands Image © Rachel’s Ruminations

When I, an American, arrived in the Netherlands with my Dutch husband, I very quickly started getting calls from his friends, or rather his friends’ girlfriends, inviting themselves over for a cup of tea. That in itself seemed odd to me, given that in the US you never invite yourself over to someone else’s house. But I also knew they wanted to check out this American woman they’d heard about but had never met.

From visits with my in-laws, I’d learned that tea also meant cookies, so I would either buy or bake cookies in preparation for these visits.

The woman would come in and we’d exchange the usual greetings (three kisses on the cheeks) and sit down. I would pour tea for them and for myself. I’d place the teapot and a full plate of cookies between us on the table.

As we chatted, I would eat a cookie … or two or three. They wouldn’t. When I finished my cup of tea, I’d pour myself another. They wouldn’t. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why; I just figured they didn’t want any more tea and they might be dieting or not like cookies.

I figured out months later what was really happening: I was being incredibly rude. I was supposed to keep offering tea and pouring it for them. If I didn’t, I was sending the message that it was time for them to think about leaving. Not only that: I was supposed to offer cookies from time to time by lifting up the plate and holding it out to them, or by saying “Would you like a cookie?” and again, later, “Would you like another cookie?” Instead, I sat there, pouring my own tea and munching cookies, never once offering them any. So rude!

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BeyondBex: Interesting cultural observation. Because in the UK, we would think it rude to go into someone’s house and, even though there’s a pot of tea and biscuits in front of us on a table, I personally would wait for the host to ask and serve me (I think it also depends on how well I know him/her. If I’ve known them a long time, I would probably dive right in!)

BeyondBex: Staying with the Netherlands – Europe, I introduce two entries:

1) Bragging in The Netherlands
by Manon of Visiting the Dutch Countryside

visiting the dutch countryside - explore the netherlands beyond the crowds- middelburg zeeland - Image © Visiting the Dutch Cou
visiting the dutch countryside – explore the netherlands beyond the crowds- middelburg zeeland – Image © Visiting the Dutch Cou
If you’re looking to come to The Netherlands to show off your new Ferrari, or E-bike, stop right now. If you’re bragging in The Netherlands we, Dutch people, will immediately dislike you. The reason? We have this saying that is the following: ‘Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg.’ Literally, this means ‘act normal, then you act weird enough already.’ If you stand out positively or negatively and are loudly bragging about the next house you are going to buy on Mauritius, it’s best if you leave the country. People who are show-offs are considered arrogant and if there’s something we hate… You guessed it. It’s arrogance. If you are looking to talk about your wealth or status, choose another country because you will not be met with open arms. In fact, it will make you unattractive and you will not make any friends with the locals. This doesn’t have to do anything with jealousy though. We, in general, keep our wealth and status to ourselves and don’t feel like showing off. It’s our normal behaviour.
BeyondBex: Gosh! Some very strong feelings expressed here! Does anyone feel, when they travel, that they hear ‘bragging’? Is bragging a culturally relative concept? eg: what might be considered bragging in one country could be perceived as not in another. Any thoughts?

2) Photos in the red-light district in The Netherlands

One other cultural faux pas in The Netherlands is taking photos of prostitutes in the red-light districts. I know that not every country has legalized prostitution, however this doesn’t mean that you should treat the men and women like they’re a part of a theme park. Prostitution is a real job in The Netherlands. Treat the men and women with respect. Would you take a photo of every hairdresser you see? Or cashier? I hope the answer to that is no. Besides that, not everyone who works in the red-light district has told his or her family members. So, privacy is very important. And some women are unfortunately the victims of human trafficking. In the case of the latter, you might think that it’s a good idea to take a photo, but it’s not. Leave that to undercover police officers and researchers. There are several signs in the red-light district of Amsterdam that tell you not to take photos. Why would you still take them? It’s called privacy. Another thing is that there are often ‘pimps’ or owners of the windows standing outside. And it wouldn’t be the first time that someone lost his or her phone after taking a photo. I warned you. It’s your own fault.

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Using red ink in Korea – Asia
by Chris of Worthy Go

korea photo
It’s not something the average tourist will see or do accidentally, but writing someone’s name in red ink is a big cultural faux pas in Korea. Traditionally, the colour red is associated with death, and red ink is used to record your name in your family’s register after you’ve passed away. To write a living person’s name in red is to wish them dead.

While you might not see it as a tourist, you might also see a do-jang, or a ‘name chop’ — essentially a personal rubber stamp or seal used in place of a signature. These frequently use red ink, and you might correctly ask, wait, what? But this use of red is perfectly normal.

Beyond Bex: Thanks Chris. This is interesting. I remember my schoolwork from a child and any feedback on essays being written in red ink, showing that culture indeed plays a role.

Using your left hand – Asia
by Alex of Lost with Purpose Travel Blog

Be sure to use your right hand in Asian countries! Image © Alex - Lost with Purpose Travel Blog
Be sure to use your right hand in Asian countries! Image © Alex – Lost with Purpose Travel Blog
When you’re in Asia—especially in South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, or Pakistan—being a lefty is hard work. Why? Because doing something with your hands isn’t quite as straight forward as using whichever hand is free.
See, in South Asian culture, the left hand is considered unclean. Toilet paper isn’t common in this part of the world; many people rely on a splash of water and a swipe of the left hand instead. For obvious reasons, eating, handing over money or offering your left hand for a handshake is considered rude, to the point of being offensive. Though wiping with your hand is a thing, eating excrement or getting your faecal matter over someone else’s hands certainly isn’t.
Luckily, most people will understand you don’t mean offence if you fumble around with some money, and accidentally hand it to the shopkeeper with your left hand. But eating, pointing at objects (especially religious objects), or introducing yourself with your left are big no-nos to be avoided.
If you happen to be a lefty, start practicing eating with your right hand… or prepare to go hungry any time you eat out with others!
BeyondBex: This is fascinating insight Alex – thanks so much!  A very valuable tip as many people travel around Asia.
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Queue Jumping in the UK
by Julianna of The Discoveries of

bus stop queue photo
Photo by fsse8info

If you are travelling to the UK, there are a myriad of rules about what’s polite and what just won’t fly in British society.
We’re a notoriously difficult bunch to decipher. Saying sorry when we absolutely mean the opposite, doling out levels of sarcasm that can be a shock to the system. However, if I had to give you one piece of advice, it would be this.

The queue is sacred. (BeyondBex: Yes! It is! Learn to queue!)

We Brits love a queue. Whether it’s getting on the bus, jumping on the underground, waiting for the ATM, getting on an escalator – I guarantee you that there will be a queue and that queue is sacred.
Don’t try and sidle your way in and think that no one will notice. Everyone will notice.

The more emboldened might mutter a cross word or two in your direction.

Someone might even say the dreaded words “Excuse me, but there’s a queue here”, which roughly translates as “Get to the back you selfish queue-jumping excuse of a human being. Don’t try and push in front of me or the other people here. Who do you think you are? The Queen?.
Of course, there are exceptions. Last spot on a packed train during rush hour? Guarantee you that will be a free for all. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule and that rule is… the queue is sacred.

BeyondBex: Amen to that!

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Tipping in the U.S. – North America
by Toni of Enchanted Serendipity

United States - Image © Enchanted Serendipity
United States – Image © Enchanted Serendipity

If there’s one thing travellers can get wrong, or just have general anxiety about – it’s tipping.

Specifically, tipping in the United States.

Unlike many countries, minimum wages in the US are lower and mostly un-survivable, with some workers in food service and hospitality earning as little as $2 an hour! As a result, tipping has continued to remain a large part of American culture, with tips ‘paying’ workers a proper wage at the expense of customers. Whatever your view on it though, the meals are usually large and value for money, and your money can go far here – even with tipping.

So what happens when you come from a country that doesn’t tip, and you visit a country that does? This is the predicament that many people find themselves in – and where they begin to make the ultimate, albeit unintentional faux pas.

1. We Overtip – Give too much of our hard earned travel money away because we don’t want to look cheap. I remember on my first trip in 2008, tipping a shuttle driver $30 because he drove me 1 hour from the airport…what was I thinking? Should have been $5-10!

2. We Undertip – Give too little, or not even close to the 18% ‘recommended’ tip rate. How do we even know what “good” service is compared to “great” service when we have no idea how to tip anyway? Rule of thumb – double the tax. Or add 18-20% minimum to your bill total if you’re happy with your service.

3. We Don’t Tip At All – This angers me because while the other options are fair mistakes, there is no excuse for not tipping in America. Watch any film or tv show and you know what tipping is. But for those who refuse to tip because they don’t have the budget? That is actually ridiculous. Deliberately not tipping is the biggest faux pax a traveller can make. I always tip – but friends of mine have gone over and not tipped as they didn’t know they had to. But, after hostility from wait staff when they returned – they soon worked it out and tipped.

Don’t be the person that gets this wrong. Tipping is customary in America. If you don’t want to tip, don’t travel there.
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BeyondBex: Gosh – some strong feelings there about tipping and how we get it wrong. Anyone want to chime in? It’s really interesting to see people’s views on this, especially as in Europe it can be considered an insult to tip.  And by contrast, see the next cultural faux pax:

Do not tip in Japan – Asia
by Stefan of Nomadic Boys Gay Blog

Nomadic Boys no tipping in Japan © Nomadic Boys
Nomadic Boys no tipping in Japan © Nomadic Boys Gay Blog
One of the most interesting cultural faux pas we’ve experienced is the “no tipping” culture in Japan. In total contrast to the US, tipping in Japan is regarded as an insult.
If you try to tip in Japan, it will be refused and politely returned to you. In fact, it can be considered rude and insulting in many situations because it may be taken that you are implying that the business is not paying its staff a proper salary. Therefore, we suggest playing it safe by assuming that all prices in Japan already include gratuity and service.
If you do want to tip someone in Japan, the best way to do it is to present it as a sort of “gift”. For example, by placing the money inside a sealed envelope and handing it to the recipient, using both hands and a slight bow. Doing it this way ensures that neither party is embarrassed.
If your tip is returned to you, don’t insist they keep it as this will embarrass the recipient.
Whilst travelling in Japan consider renting a pocket WiFi so you can share your memories on the go and so you can have practical advice at your fingertips to prevent any other cultural faux pas.
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BeyondBex: This is a really interesting one, especially because it contrasts so much with the U.S., where we’ve seen, by comparison, it’s an insult not to tip!
And what you say about the ‘brown envelope’ is also interesting because the fakelaki in Greek culture (brown envelope) used to be a tradition where money was put inside and pinned to the brides dress at weddings.  Now, unfortunately, it’s used in the ‘bribe culture’.
Cultural Faux Pas Around the World - Tip or not to tip

Essential reading

Culture Smart pocket size Guide book to
Culture Smart pocket size Guide book to Greek culture and customs
Cultural Smart Guides are a unique pocket guidebook as they offer tips about culture and traditions from all the countries they produce books for.  I received one about Greece as a review copy (for free) and admit I did find out many things about the country previously unknown.  They go through a little about the history, values and attitudes, customs and traditions of a place – an excellent way to arm yourself to ensure you don’t commit any cultural faux pas when on holiday or even if you’re going abroad for longer.
Click on the link above or the picture, apply the code LBB-40 at check out to receive a 40% discount when you purchase any guide.

Do you have any common cultural faux pas that you see happen where you are? Have you committed any and thought ‘I wish I’d known!’ Share in the comments – I, personally, feel as if I have learned a lot from these insights.  Thank you to my collaborators.

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Cultural Faux Pas To Avoid When You Travel.
Cultural Faux Pas To Avoid When You Travel.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for including me in this collaboration! I always struggle with the tipping thing. I grew up in the US and part of me, even after 21 years in the Netherlands, still WANTS to tip. It just feels rude not to. Fortunately in the Netherlands people won’t be insulted if you tip; they’ll happily take it, but it’s not expected and not necessary. People will generally just round up or leave a euro on the table, that’s all. In any case, when I travel, I always look up what the tipping rules are for that country!

    • Yes, as a British person it’s hard to get used to tipping too. I know that in some places people consider it ‘showing off’ as if you are trying to prove you’re better because you’ve got money to throw around…braggy, as we say.

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