14 Cultural Faux Pas Around The World

Planning a trip outside of your own country can be an involved process. On top of the usual tasks of purchasing airline tickets, booking a hotel, deciding what to see, and making reservations, you may also need to obtain a visa and learn some basic foreign language phrases. One thing you may not have considered, though, is brushing up on cultural faux pas of the countries where you plan to visit. For instance, is it rude to shake hands when greeting someone in certain countries? Is a “thumb’s up” considered an insult in the Middle East? Can you go into an Italian cathedral in a sleeveless shirt?

Faux pas #1: Japan and China – Pointing chopsticks upright in a rice bowl.
Japan has a number of cultural “no-no’s”, and if you’re not careful you could unwittingly insult someone. For example, Buddhists consider placing chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice an offering to the dead. In China, this placement is seen as bad luck.

Faux pas #2: China – Wearing shoes in sacred places.
Many cultures have customs about taking your shoes off when you enter a temple or other sacred place. China is one of them. You should also take off your shoes upon entering someone’s home.

Faux pas #3: Confusing China for Japan (and vice-versa)
China and Japan have a very long, complicated history that would make this mistake highly insulting. But unfortunately this is a mistake even royalty can make.

Faux pas #5: United Arab Emirates – Wearing revealing clothing
Out of respect and in keeping with the dress codes of local establishments, women are generally advised to wear clothing that covers from the shoulders to the knees. Tight-fitting sports apparel, such as cycling shorts, is generally not advised for either men or women unless worn in a sports venue.

Faux pas #6: Italy – Not following the dress code for cathedrals.
Like number 5, if you’re planning a trip to Italy, you will want to visit the country’s famous cathedrals such as St. Peter’s in Vatican City. These sacred places have dress codes in order to enter them. Bare shoulders, short skirts, and dresses that are above the knees are not acceptable. Wear pants or a long dress/skirt and bring a sweater or scarf to cover your shoulders.

Faux pas #7: U.K. and Brazil – Offensive hand gestures.
Peace sign? Refrain from making this gesture in the U.K. It’s basically an invitation to a fight, as if you flipped someone off. In Brazil, raising a fist means that a man’s wife is cheating on him. The “OK” sign is also considered obscene.

Faux pas #8: Singapore – Bringing bubblegum into the country.
Bubblegum caused such a problem in terms of vandalism that the country decided to ban it altogether. Even having it on you is a strict “no-no” that can land you in jail for up to two years. So, no blowing bubbles in Singapore.

Faux pas #9: Thailand – Touching someone’s head.
The key to avoiding offense in Thailand is remembering one simple rule…the head is sacred and feet are unclean. Therefore, you never want to point at someone’s feet or make any type of physical contact with another person’s head.

Faux pas #10: Korea – Smiling at strangers.
In America, it is customary to smile when you meet someone new or even pass strangers on the street. In Korea, this is outside of the norm and even viewed as strange.

Faux pas #11: Pakistan – Not giving your elders proper respect.
Many cultures revere elderly people. Paying proper respect to them is extremely important. If you are introduced to an elderly person in Pakistan, stand up and greet him or her formally. Staying seated is an insult.

Faux pas #12: Iran and Iraq – Using a thumb’s up gesture.
If you want to say “good job” in American we often give a thumb’s up. In Iran and Iraq this common gesture is not acceptable. At all. It is one of the worst non-verbal insults you can make.

Faux pas #13: Calling a Scottish, Irish or Welsh person “English”.
Great Britain includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Various wars and conflicts have been going on between these countries for centuries. Though they mostly get along now, they prefer to be called “Welsh” or “Scottish” or “Irish”. Calling any of them “English” could lead to a fight.

Faux pas #14: Nepal – Shaking hands as a greeting.
The American way of meeting some new is by shaking hands. In Nepal, this is not acceptable. The best way to greet someone is by pressing your palms together, as if you were in prayer. It’s a gesture known as namaste.


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Kristin Wallace is a USA Today Bestselling fiction author and advertising copywriter who is addicted to learning and writing about language, culture and art around the world. She lives and works in sunny Miami, Florida.

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