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Six Cultural Faux Pas to Avoid When Traveling

By Edited Jun 29, 2016 9 20

Six Cultural Faux Pas to Avoid When Traveling

With literally hundreds of different nations, peoples and customs here on earth it comes as no surprise that people simply do things differently. What's acceptable in one country may be totally unacceptable in another. As such, one is almost destined to commit cultural faux pas when traveling.

Having done my fare share of international travel I've learned that it pays to educate yourself about the culture(s) you'll be visiting to have a better understanding of what's acceptable and what's not. While you won't learn it all, it can help immensely to travel armed with this valuable information.

I've compiled a list of 6 different common faux pas to avoid when traveling that everyone should make an effort to learn before leaving home:

· Personal contact – Some cultures are very outgoing and very accepting of personal contact. In Brazil for example, it's common for strangers to hug and even (cheek) kiss when greeting. In other countries though, this type of contact would be considered very formal and completely unacceptable in a first meeting. They would most definitely consider this a cultural faux pas.

Likewise, common gestures such as hand shaking can also be considered a breach of personal space (not all cultures accept this form of greeting) and some societies that do hand shake only accept it a certain way. For instance, in Muslim and Hindu cultures the left hand is considered unclean so handshaking and eating are always done with the right hand. Extending your left hand in greeting would be a major faux pas here.

· Hand gestures – Many of us perform hand gestures without even thinking as they are so common to us in our own culture. When traveling though they are something to pay close attention to and even avoid altogether if you're not sure how they'll be received.

For instance giving the peace sign in the UK with your palm facing the wrong direction (towards you, it should be facing away) would be the equivalent of telling them to f*?$ off. Giving the "OK" sign in Brazil is tantamount to calling someone an a-hole.

· Food – I think I could write an entire article just on food faux pas alone! General

Chopsticks Faux Pas
ly these are considered less egregious but there are potentially many. In some cultures placement of eating utensils can have various negative meanings such as leaving chopsticks standing upright in rice (this mimics some funeral rites).

Eating noisily or conversely eating quietly can be considered a compliment or rude depending on where you are - the same with belching during or after a meal. Refusing food or drink from your host could also be considered very rude (regardless of what it is!).

There are so many potential faux pas to avoid when traveling in this category it's one everyone should pay extra attention to!

· Clothes – Some cultures frown upon exposure of cleavage or other body parts (like hair, face, etc.). Other cultures also frown heavily upon anything that is even vaguely see through (for men or women). Tight fitting clothes or clothes that accentuate the body are also unacceptable in other cultures.

In addition, clothing rules that apply to one gender don't necessarily apply to the other so this is another area lack of care and caution could cause a cultural travel faux pas.

· Body language – In various cultures how you carry yourself can also have both positive and negative connotations. Crossing your ankles or legs might be seen as defensive. Lifting your feet off the floor or exposing the soles of your shoes could be considered a major offense.

Blowing your nose in public in some Asian and European countries could be considered very inappropriate as well as keeping your hands off the table when eating (Indonesia).

· Conversation – While most cultures consider it rude to point at someone while talking, speaking loudly, out of turn or even looking someone in the eyes (or not looking!) when speaking could be considered rude.

Cultural faux pas when traveling abroad are going to happen. Generally most cultures will know and understand that your mistakes are not intentional and give you a fair amount of leeway when such indiscretions occur.

It goes a long way though, and is a sign of mutual respect, If you prepare yourself ahead of time and make the sincere effort to avoid such cultural faux pas in the first place. With access to the internet or your local library, major mistakes like those above should be easily avoidable.

If in doubt, simply ask someone in the know (one of the locals)! Most cultures and peoples are more than happy to share their way of life to new comers and in doing so share a part of themselves. Open your mind to the travel experience and how others do things and enjoy, don't rebel at those differences.



Jul 30, 2010 5:07am
This is something I hope many people will read. Sometimes when traveling I have often felt ashamed at the way some people taunt or ridicule the people in the town they are visiting. Great idea to tune up your knowledge before going to that country. rated up thanks
Jul 30, 2010 6:54am
Thanks eileen! I do think it's important to know something about the cultures you're visiting. Many people take for granted that the world outside their borders is the same and it's simply not! A little effort goes a long ways in smoothing over these faux pas as you learn your way around. Glad you liked the article!
Aug 22, 2010 7:19pm
This is a great article. I have some travel articles that I plan to write and this gives me some incentive to do it. These are all spot on. I have traveled a little bit and blundered a lot! Ah, but isn't that part of life. It was a good thing that I was going to stay for several weeks at a time with a friend so I could be corrected. Good work!
Aug 25, 2010 9:57pm
Thank you JP! I've done the same - my first time I went to Brazil I kept using the "OK" hand sign and that's a huge insult there! But yes, that's how we learn and I was quickly corrected. Now we can look back and laugh haha But I've done stuff like that many times.
Jan 23, 2011 1:27pm
I've spent some time in Brazil and eye contact is very important. Americans will look away before staring into another's eyes. In Brazil this leads to suspicion or distrust.
Sep 1, 2010 1:20am
Totally agree with you, the chopsticks arranged in that manner indicates that you are inviting ghosts to eat with you!

One of the more fixed faux pas!
Sep 1, 2010 5:38pm
Great article Kevin and congrats on the front page you deserve it!
Sep 1, 2010 6:14pm
Thank you! It was quite the nice surprise! Thanks for the kudos Travis!
Sep 3, 2010 4:02pm
Grats on the front page!
Sep 3, 2010 5:03pm
Thank you!
Sep 14, 2010 6:19am
This is something I hope many people will read.
Sep 20, 2010 10:25pm
I, too, hope many people read your article. When one of our daughters recently visited Egypt, she borrowed some appropriately conservative clothing from a middle eastern girlfriend, and was so glad that she did. People need to show respect in the countries they visit!
Sep 27, 2010 6:57pm
All very good points. I always make it my business to know local customs when I travel, but you highlighted a few that had slipped my mind.
Nov 5, 2010 12:53pm
Great article Kevin and congrats for front page. I have a dear friend from Singapore, she has taught me much about her culture and lots of good recipes.
Nov 8, 2010 7:12am
Thanks barrycrete!

So true Deborah :) The world does not revolve around us!

Glad it was helpful JoSwann!

Thank you Lynsuz! I've learned so much traveling abroad, it's always an adventure haha
Dec 14, 2010 7:08pm
enjoyes in reading it. you bring together many aspects, what i like. but i dont seem to get on to publish any articles. must i wait for approval or what?
Dec 14, 2010 7:22pm
Thank you almada - yes, new users have to go through an approval period for their first 10 articles or so.
Dec 22, 2010 5:39am
Very helpful info before visiting another country. Great read Kev
Dec 23, 2010 8:23am
liujinbin - no spam for you!
Jan 16, 2011 3:05pm
Yes, good points to consider. Sometimes it's not even about causing offence, but about being confused about behaviour or stuff. For example people seeing different type of toilet in a hotel report it as broken and avoid for days :)
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