Want to be a world traveler? Great! Grab your passport, guidebook, collection of phrases, and you're ready, right? Not quite. If you want to make your experience — and that of everybody else around you— in a foreign country great, you need to know the customs and etiquette of the cultures you're encountering. If you make a foreign faux pas, you'll embarrass yourself, insult your hosts, and give the country you come from a seriously bad name. Not worth it. So reading up on etiquette before you hop on a plane is a seriously good idea.
You should also approach overseas manners standards with respect and nuance. It's not "funny foreigners being pernickety"; cultural traditions of politeness often have ancestral origins and are a key part of society, so they shouldn't be laughed at or pushed. (Some, like insulting the Thai royal family, could put you in jail.) They may also differ depending on the region you're in or the age of the people you're hanging with. As a general rule, the elderly tend to be more traditional, while the young may be more lax — but don't make any assumptions.
Here are some of the worst faux pas to avoid in countries around the world. Even if you see other people doing these with abandon, avoid as much as you can. Just because nobody's calling them out doesn't mean they're not causing some serious offense.
1. Accepting A Gift The First Time It's Offered In Japan
Gift-receiving etiquette isn't always about delightedly ripping open a parcel and screaming with happiness. In Japan, it's considered polite to gently refuse a proffered gift once or twice, and then finally accept it when the giver presses it upon you. Not to do so looks greedy. Yes, even on your birthday. It's particularly important to keep this in mind if you're doing business in Japan, as gifts are a part of the corporate culture and you'll need to look like you know what you're doing.
2. Smiling At A Stranger In Korea
Smiling at strangers in Korea isn't regarded as a beaming act of goodwill towards all humans; it's considered rude. Smiling or laughing in the direction of somebody you don't know is taken as a sign that you believe you're smarter or better than they are; it's seen as snide. Not great if you're trying to catch the eye of somebody cool across the room at a party.
3. Touching Anybody's Head In Thailand
This is a gigantic no-no with its roots in Thailand's spiritual beliefs. Touching anybody's head or hair, even accidentally, is a faux pas, as the head is regarded in Thai Buddhism as a sacred part of the body. And yes, this also applies to children, so you can't just pinch the cheeks of an adorable Thai child. It's why the Thai Prime Minister got into such hot water for the apparently bizarre act of stroking a journalist's head and pulling his ears back in 2014; he was being deliberately disrespectful.
4. Leaving Chopsticks Upright In The Bowl China
Chopstick etiquette rule number one: don't put them in your hair, because it's cultural appropriation at its worst. Chopstick etiquette rule number two: don't leave them sticking upright in your rice bowl at the end of a meal, even if it was utterly delicious. Leaving chopsticks in this position is regarded as extremely rude and bad luck, as it's reminiscent of the way in which bowls of rice or incense are offered to the dead.
5. Not Getting Up To Greet Strangers In Pakistan
It's important, in many cultures around the world, to be exceedingly polite to both strangers and elders. Pakistan is one of several countries where introductions to either strangers or the elderly have to be done formally. If you're seated when either of them are introduced to you, you have to get up. Staying seated is regarded as an insult, unless you're seriously physically incapacitated.
6. Using A Thumbs-Up Gesture In Iran & Iraq
Iraqi and Iranian people view the thumbs-up sign not as a signal of positivity but as one of the worst insults that can be communicated non-verbally. Thumbs are technically a bit dicey around the world, and can mean anything from "f*ck you" to "kill him". You might as well be giving them the finger.
7. Leaving The Table During Dinner In The Netherlands
If you're invited to dinner at the house of a Dutch person, be aware that you should go to the bathroom before you go; it's considered extremely rude to get up at any point during the meal, if it's a short one. If there are multiple courses, you're allowed to get up briefly between the courses themselves, but not to take long phone conversations or wander off. If you really need to go to the bathroom, just ask if you can be excused.
8. Making The "OK" Hand Gesture In Brazil
The generalized American hand sign for "OK" — thumb and index finger in a circle, other fingers flared — is, if inverted to that the hand is upside down, a serious insult in Brazil. It's regarded as obscene, so for heaven's sake don't use it to communicate how good the food was in a Brazilian restaurant; you may be thrown out.
9. Giving Chrysanthemums As A Gift In France
Chrysanthemums are everywhere in France in November — but resist the temptation to grab a bunch to give to somebody special. They'll probably think you're a lunatic or a ghoul. Chrysanthemums are, for the French, reserved solely for placing on the tombs of the dead, and pop up in November because of Remembrance Day. It's the equivalent of giving an American a funeral wreath.
10. Pointing Without Bending Your Finger In Madagascar
Finger-pointing is problematic in many places around the world: Indonesia, Cambodia, Argentina, India, East Africa, and Turkey all count it as pretty rude. In Madagascar, however, they allow it — with the provision that your pointing finger is bent. Presumably this "softens" the gesture so that it's less accusatory and full-on.
11. Calling A Welsh Person "English" In Wales
Do this and prepare to get into a fight. The Welsh, Northern Irish, Scottish, and English are all part of Great Britain, which means that they can be referred to as "British". But don't you dare call a Welsh person "English". Wales and England have been having wars on and off since the fifth century AD, and the two countries are immensely proud of their differences — so getting them mixed up is a route to an encounter with a Welsh fist. (This applies to Ireland and Scotland as well; everybody in the United Kingdom has been fighting for centuries. Woe betide you if you mix them up.)
Images: Amy/Flickr, Giphy