10 Cultural Faux Pas to Avoid When Traveling Abroad

7 min read

Every culture has rules that must be followed. What’s considered perfectly normal in one society could be rude or even illegal in another. Here are ten things you need to be aware of when traveling abroad so you don’t break any of those rules and find yourself banished or worse–imprisoned!

10. Gestures

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Many of the gestures we display every day in the U.S. are actually very offensive in other countries. For example, giving someone a “thumbs up” in Iraq and Iran is equivalent to giving them the finger. The same goes for the “peace out” sign when done to someone in the UK.

If you raise your fist while in Brazil, you’re signaling to a man that his wife is cheating on him. And, if you put your fist to your forehead, then you’re telling him that you believe he’s stupid.

No matter what country you’re in, finger-pointing is typically seen as rude. Just make sure to bend your pointer if you’re ever in Madagascar. It’s seen as less rude. And whatever you do, NEVER ever point at people with your feet in Southeast Asia. The feet are considered the lowest, dirtiest part of the body in some regions of Laos and Thailand.

9. Clothing

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If you’re planning on going to the beach in the United Arab Emirates, you might want to leave your swimsuit at the hotel. That’s because showing skin is highly offensive in Muslim countries.

Speaking of showing skin, did you know that baring your midriff in Italy is a no-no? According to Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo.com, “Catholic cathedrals and basilicas throughout Italy and Vatican City strictly enforce a strict dress code for all visitors.” Showing too much skin just might get you barred from sacred religious sites. To be on the safe side, everyone should wear clothing that covers the shoulders, and women should wear skirts and dresses that go past the knee, Saglie added.

Footwear is also just as important. Some ancient sites in Greece, for example, forbid visitors from wearing high heels in order to protect their cultural treasures. And, when in China, you’ll need to remove your shoes before you enter anyone’s home or a temple. Just make sure you don’t show the bottom of your feet to others. As we just mentioned, it can be seen as highly offensive.

8. Public Displays of Affection

No Touching
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Touching is definitely a no-no when traveling abroad. Here are some tips to avoid committing cultural faux pas:

-Don’t touch anyone’s head in Thailand. The head is considered sacred. Avoid passing items over people’s heads as well.
Avoid personal contact like the plague when in China–especially if you’re a man. It’s highly inappropriate for a man to touch a woman in public.
-Never offer your hand to an Arab woman unless she offers it first.
-Absolutely no kissing, hugging, or holding hands with your bae when you’re in Saudi Arabia. You could end up in prison for it. It’s happened before!

7. Dining Etiquette

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So, you’re probably thinking that when traveling abroad, you should never burp, slurp your soup or beverages, or smack your lips when eating, right? WRONG! In Singapore, burping, slurping and smacking your lips are seen as signs of gratitude for a delicious meal. Surprised? We bet you are. These other dining dos and don’ts might also surprise you:

-Don’t pour your own drink in Japan. It’s considered taboo. Do pour drinks for the elders first.
-Don’t point your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl in China and Japan. It’s considered rude and is associated with bad luck, not to mention that Buddhists might interpret it as an “offering” to the dead.
-Don’t order a cappuccino after 10:30 a.m. in Italy. That’s because milk should only be consumed at breakfast.
-Don’t eat bread before the main course in France. Instead, pair it with cheese and other entrees. Also, don’t split the tab with others in your party. It’s customary for one person to take care of the entire bill.
-Don’t chew, pop or carry bubblegum in Singapore. It was outlawed in 1992 after vandals used it to trash sidewalks, keyholes, and public transportation. If you’re caught with gum, you could face a $3,000 fine. Pharmacists caught selling bubblegum could face up to two years in the slammer.
-Don’t discuss business at meals when dining in China.
-Don’t leave the table during dinner in the Netherlands. It’s considered extremely rude. But, if you must get up from the table, ask to be excused.
-Don’t eat in public in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting and prayer. It’s punishable by law.

6. Greetings and Language Etiquette

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When in Rome… or in this case, France, do as the French do–speak the local language. It’s seen as polite. So, make sure you brush up on your French before going. Also, make sure you say ‘Bonjour’ to everyone you come across and avoid talking too loudly.

When in Greece, expect to get and give lots of hugs and kisses. “Hugging and kissing go together,” Colleen Clark, managing editor of Jetsetter.com, told U.S. News & World Report. “If you greet someone with a hug, be prepared to also kiss on the cheek.”

If you ever find yourself in Pakistan, it’s a good idea to stand when you are introduced to strangers and elders. Staying seated is regarded as an insult. And, when you’re in Austria, make sure you shake everyone’s hand when you enter a room.

Now for the don’ts:
-Don’t talk only about the U.S. in conversations, no matter what country you’re visiting.
-Don’t smile at strangers in Korea. It’s seen as a sign that you think you’re smarter or better than them.
-Don’t address people by their first name. In America, “intimacy equals respect,” but, in most other countries, “formality equals respect,” Robert Hickey, the deputy director of the Protocol School of Washington, and author of Honor and Respect: The Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address, told Business Insider. “The Koreans work with someone for 20 years and they call them ‘Mr. last name,'” Hickey added. “It doesn’t mean they’re not great friends, it just means they show one another that respect. In our culture that’s distance.”

5. Gift-Giving/Receiving Etiquette

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Giving and receiving gifts is totally acceptable when you’re overseas. After all, who doesn’t like giving and receiving gifts? But, make sure you know the rules so you don’t offend anyone. For example, giving someone chrysanthemums in France is the same thing as someone giving you a funeral wreath here in the States. Certain gift items are associated with death in China as well. These include clocks, handkerchiefs, cranes, storks, and anything black, white or blue.

If you’re in Japan and you happen to be receiving a gift, make sure you refuse it once or twice before finally accepting it. It makes you look less greedy that way.

4. Business Meeting Etiquette

Business Meeting
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If you ever find yourself in China on business, the following tips will help you to avoid committing cultural faux pas:

-Use both your hands when giving and accepting business cards. Study it, don’t write on it, and never put it in your wallet or pocket. Put it in a small card case instead.
-Stand up when others enter the room.
-Show respect to those who appear to be older than you.
-Allow the Chinese to leave the meeting first.

3. Taking Phone Calls

Phone Convo
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If you’re in Brazil and you’re deep in conversation with someone and your phone rings, by all means answer it. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s not uncommon for Brazilians to interrupt a conversation to answer the phone. In fact, it’s considered extremely rude in some parts of the country to ignore a phone call–even when you’re already engaged in conversation with someone else.

Interruptions are quite common there all the time, not just when it comes to receiving phone calls. “Communication in Brazil is often informal, so anyone who feels they have something to say will generally add their opinion,” according to StreetSmartBrazil.com.

2. Comparing Cultures

Apples And Oranges
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Don’t do it. That’s the advice given by many experts. This means resisting the urge to equate China to Japan or the urge to call a Welsh person “English.” Wales and England are both part of Great Britain, so that makes their residents British, but only those from England are English.

Also, don’t assume that all foreigners want to be like Americans. That’s the advice given by Robert Hickey. “They don’t want to be like us. They want to be citizens of the world, just like we’re citizens of the world. They want to be comfortable anywhere. But they don’t want to be like us because they see the holes in what we have,” he told Business Insider.

1. Drug Possession

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If you’re caught with drugs in Southeast Asia, you could end up receiving a lengthy prison sentence–or worse, the death penalty. We’re not just talking about the hardcore stuff. You can be punished for carrying OTC drugs that are perfectly legal in the U.S. and Europe. As a precaution, TripSavvy.com recommends the following tips:

-Don’t bring your own drugs and don’t carry suspicious packages for others.
-If you are taking prescription drugs, make sure to bring the written prescription(s) with you.


Have you ever committed any cultural faux pas while traveling abroad? If so, what happened? Were there any consequences? Let us know in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!