Cultural Faux Pas and How to Avoid Them Around the World

Physical Contact

Physical contact and touch are very personal things and depending where in the world you are, you have to be extremely careful where you place your hands when interacting with the locals.

Mediterranean: A gentle touch on the arm or a warm embrace when you greet someone is practically expected. If you fail to make any tactile contact with an acquaintance or friend you may be considered cold and stand-offish.

South Korea: Many types of physical contact are considered to be completely inappropriate. South Koreans are particularly averse to overt physical contact between members of the opposite sex or with older people.

Thailand: The head is considered to be sacred, so you should never touch or pat someone on the head, even children.

Middle East: In the majority of Middle Eastern countries men and women are strictly forbidden from touching each other in public.

Left or Right Hand?

In some cultures you can come across as highly insulting or downright repulsive simply by using your left hand over your right hand in a given situation. For example, in many India, Morocco, Africa, Malaysia and the Middle East, the right hand is used for eating, shaking hands and passing items to one another, and the left hand is associated with bathroom duties. Get it the wrong way round at your peril!

Blowing Your Nose

In the west it’s generally considered to be more polite to blow your nose than to sit continually sniffing in other people’s company. However, in some countries it is considered to be highly offensive and bad mannered. For example, in Japan, China and Saudi Arabia many people find blowing your nose in public disgusting, especially if you use a handkerchief. In these countries it is best to retire to the restroom to clear out the contents of your nose.

Eye Contact

Again, this is where the East and West can different enormously. In many western countries, such as the UK and the USA, forming eye contact with someone during conversation is seen as indicative that you can be trusted and failing to look associated and people you meet in the eye can make you look rude. However, in many Asian countries prolonged eye contact can make people feel uncomfortable and you may come across many situations where people you meet will not look you directly in the eye. To avoid sticky situations, follow the behavior of others and don’t be offended if people won’t meet your gaze.

Sharing a Drink

Drinking etiquette is quite a complex and tricky business and every culture has their own strict customs that every expat should be aware of and try to honor. Here are just some of the things that may be expected of you depending on where you are:

Russia: If someone pours you a shot of vodka, you should down it in one gulp, it is not a drink that is intended for sipping. Never be tempted to dilute vodka with another beverage.

France: If you are drinking with a group of people in France you should never fill your own wine glass without first offering a top up to everyone else who is seated with you.

Korea: Women may only pour or refill drinks on behalf of men, they should never do so for other women.

Japan: When drinking with others in Japan, you should fill the drink of the person next to you, but not your own. According to the Lonely Planet: “Filling your own glass amounts to admitting to everyone at the table that you’re an alcoholic.”

Table Manners

Eating dinner with others in a formal setting can be an absolute minefield and the sooner you familiarize yourself with the local customs and etiquette the better. Once again, the rules differ enormously according to where in the world you are. Here are just a few of the expectations you may encounter.

Japan: In Japan it’s totally fine to slurp your food, so don’t be repulsed if the person next to you is a very noisy eater!

Russia: Wrists should be placed on the edge of the table when you eat and you should hold your fork with your left hand and your fork with your right.

France: It is considered highly rude to discuss money matters over the dinner table and when the bill arrives you should never offer to split it; it is generally expected that the person who initiated the dinner meeting will pick up the tab. As such, if you don’t wish to foot the bill at an expensive restaurant, don’t organize the event.

Portugal: If one of your favorite condiments is missing from the table you will have to go without. Asking for any additional seasoning or sauces can insult your host as it is seen as being indicative that the food does not taste good enough.

Getting it right can be hard and with so many different customs, rules and manners to remember and learn, it can be very easy to unintentionally insult someone. Make sure you are fully au fait on the expectations in your host country by reading our expat destination guides. Each guide contains in-depth insights into languages, religions, traditions and cultural customs that can help you to prepare for moving overseas and assist you to avoid any cultural traps that may offend.

Author: ExpatInfoDesk