An Idiot’s Guide to not Offending Abroad

Originally published in The City Journal.

Travellers are skilled improvisers. Whether you are hunting for a toilet in central Russia or ordering breakfast in Nicaragua, chances are you’ll use some sort of sign language to get your point across.

However gestures are easily lost in translation. That hi-five you want to give someone in Greece is seriously offensive may get you knocked out. Here are some things to refrain from doing in foreign countries:

cat-final infographic

Let’s get into the details:

In Japan, don’t bother tipping

While Australians may love receiving tips, the Japanese do not. According to Matador Network it is degrading to service staff.

Pick anything but white chrysanthemums in China

In China a giving bouquet of these flowers is only appropriate when someone dies. If you give these as a general gift, you are wishing bad fortune or more dramatically, death on someone.

Right hand is the right way in Indonesia

Don’t use your left hand, for anything. Don’t handshake with it, don’t eat with it, and certainly don’t touch anyone with it. In Indonesia, the left hand is traditionally used to wipe yourself in the bathroom. Using it may disgust Indonesian people.

Careful of how you ask for condiments in Italy

Viral Nova says creating a pepper mill shape (placing your elbow on the opposite hand) in Italy insinuates a person is insane. If you are after some pepper at an Italian restaurant simply ask “pepe per favour”.

It’s not okay to sign okay in Turkey

The ‘ok’ sign you often make with your hand doesn’t quite mean the same thing in Turkey. If gestured to a person Turkey, this suggests they’re homosexual.

Be respectful in India

Quora contributor Sayalie Joshi says touching the opposite sex in public is shunned in India. It often ‘sends the wrong message’ an fuel sexual thoughts.

Cutlery is the way of life in Chile

E-diplomat says using your hands to eat meals, licking your fingers and even using a toothpick is considered vulgar in Chilean culture.

Putting a fist on your forehead in Brazil

Putting your fist on your forehead is the silent way of asking someone if they’re an idiot. Sometimes it’s taken comically, sometimes it’s not.

There is no place for chewing gum in Singapore

In Singapore, chewing gum is seen as socially unattractive. In fact chewing gum can score you a hefty fine, unless it’s prescribed for medical purposes. 

Don’t pat anyone’s head in Thailand

Patting a child on the head is an affectionate gesture in Australia. Don’t even think about it in Thailand, it’s condemned. In Buddhism, the head is a sacred area where a person’s spirit exists; touching it is intrusive and offensive.

Heads down, thumbs down when in Argentina

Giving someone the thumbs up in Argentina isn’t a sign or approval or encouragement. It’s actually pretty vulgar; maybe a smile is more appropriate.

Don’t whistle while you work in Haiti

Children in Haiti are raised being taught not to whistle around people. It is seen as attention seeking and simply impolite.

Dim your inner rock-God in Spain

The ‘rock ‘n roll’ sign symbolises horns or conduros in Spain. The Telegraph says this is one’s way of insulting a man, implying their wife is cheating on them.

In South Korea pockets are for change, not for hands

In 2013, Bill Gates made the mistake of shaking South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s hand with the other in his pocket during their first meeting. This was seen as incredibly disrespectful and caused controversy throughout the country.

Crossing your fingers means something a little different in Vietnam

Back in nam, there are more appropriate ways to wish someone good luck. Online travel guide Thrillist says crossing your fingers is highly offensive, as Vietnamese people think the image resembles female genitals.

Image credit: Chronicle Books

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