Unusual customs abroad | Meals, gestures, greetings, dress & language

Things are done differently in different cultures, and it’s worth finding out what is likely to cause offence before visiting a foreign countries. Some of these are fairly obvious – such as not wearing immodest dress in strongly religious countries – but other gestures, greetings and mealtime customs are not quite as widely known.



West Africa: Vegetarian diets are thought to be for those too poor to eat meat. For a VIP (ie Western) guest to turn down the specially-killed chicken is regarded as offensive.


France: Both hands should be kept in sight – preferably on the table – during mealtimes.


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Muslim countries: Always eat with the right hand – the left hand is regarded as unclean, being traditionally used for wiping after a trip to the toilet.

The Netherlands: If clinking glasses whilst saying: “Cheers”, it is important to maintain eye-contact.


Paraguay: The ‘OK’ hand symbol has an obscene sexual connotation and is best avoided.

Indonesia: To beckon using just one finger is considered rude – use the whole palm instead.

Sardinia: Whilst to us, the thumb’s up is an affirmative signal, on the Italian island of Sardinia it is seen as an invitation to sit on a very different part of the anatomy. The same applies in Nigeria, where alternate hitch-hiking gestures are also required.

Pakistan: The closed fist is not seen as merely an aggressive gesture, but an aggressive sexual gesture.





Japan: It is considered rude to address someone in a position of seniority by their first name – always use their title as a mark of respect.


Asia: Handshakes last a lot longer – ten to fifteen seconds – but the grip should never be firm.


Korea: Avoid constant eye contact. What we may regard as appearing trustworthy may come across as being aggressive.


Brazil: It is customary to stand much closer to people than many in European and North American cultures are used to – to the point of coming across as a personal space invasion.




Malaysia: Whilst European languages emphasise gender differences, in Malaysian seniority is the key thing. This is the same with most Asian languages, and completely different words can be required depending on with whom you are speaking.

India: Saying an outright “no” is regarded as impolite. Phrases such as “I shall try” can often be a polite way of declining or refusing, and should be regarded as such, rather than an outright lie.

China: Chinese names are reversed. For example, Chan Yao Ming should be addressed as Mr Chan, not Mr Ming.

Australia: The thong is a form of footwear (ie. Flip-flop), not underwear.



Giving and Taking

Asia: Never give white flowers as a gift in Asia – they are associated with funerals.

Africa: Tourists are discouraged from giving sweets and fizzy drinks to children in villages they visit. Pens, candles and books are far better for them. Visitors should also be wary when taking photographs – in many tribal cultures, photographs are only taken when people are looking their best. To take shots of people in poverty-stricken everyday life can be considered shaming.

Australia: Always ask permission before taking photographs of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal-owned landmarks – some groups believe that the camera takes part of the soul with it.


The Philippines: Avoid wearing or displaying any red logos (particularly circular ones) – they are associated with the Japanese occupation in World War II.

India: The cow is sacred to Hindus, so be wary of displaying leather goods such as belts and wallets. These should certainly be left behind if visiting a temple.

Guatemala: It is forbidden to wear military style clothing, even if worn as a fashion item.

This article was originally written for AOL UK.


Copyright David Whitley

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