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Surprising Cultural Rules Around the World

5/17/17 by Lisa Collard

From how to greet someone to ordering a coffee to what to bring to dinner party, social norms can vary wildly between countries. And while discovering such traditions is one of the most memorable aspects of travel, no one wants to be remembered as the clueless tourist who offended the locals. So, prior to your next trip abroad, invest in building cultural currency by brushing up on local customs and etiquette. To help get you started, we dug up some of the most surprising cultural rules around the world—along with a few tips on how to navigate them.

Koffee Klatch

Coffee is a universal drink, but the customs surrounding its consumption are not.
    Natalie Collins
Coffee is a universal drink, but the customs surrounding its consumption are not. Natalie Collins

Coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world, but its consumption comes with cultural rules as varied as its flavors. For instance, in Italy, a cappuccino is only taken in the morning, as it’s considered food because of the milk in it. Italians do not drink it in the afternoon or evening when espresso is the norm (ordering espresso with your meal is another a no-no; save it for afterward).

In the Middle East, the cup will keep getting refilled until it’s shaken at the host to indicate that the drinker has had enough. And in Austria, which is famous for its coffee culture, you should take some time to study up on the head-spinning array of options before ordering, since simply requesting a cup of coffee will immediately brand you as a tourist. You can’t go wrong with a melange, which is a mix of frothed milk and steamed coffee—but, unlike its Italian cousin, it’s just fine to drink one at any time of day.

Head It Off at the Pass

In many Eastern cultures, a person’s head, known as the "home of the soul," is considered sacred. So it’s considered very rude to touch the head of anyone, including children (unless they are close friends already). Never pass anything over someone’s head for the same reason. It follows that the feet can be considered offensive. Even pointing the soles of the feet at another person is rude, particularly toward a monk in a temple.

Thailand, furthermore, has some of the world’s strictest lese-majeste laws, which protect the country’s royal family from insult or threat. So if a note of the national currency, baht, which is printed with an image of the king, is dropped on the ground, resist the urge to step on it to keep it from blowing away. That’s because you’ll be stepping on the king’s face, which can be a punishable offense.

In addition, it’s customary in many Eastern cultures to remove your shoes in people’s homes and even many business, which (somewhat surprisingly) can include medical clinics, dental offices, and grocery marts.

Folly of Flowers

Before you buy that bouquet, do a little research on what type of flowers pass the cultural ok.
Before you buy that bouquet, do a little research on what type of flowers pass the cultural ok. Quinn Dombrowski

A beautiful bouquet might seem like a universally safe gift. However, the color and type of flowers used for certain occasions can have many different meanings. In Japan and Italy, yellow flowers can indicate jealousy. Red flowers in Latvia are used for funerals, not lovers—as are lilies and chrysanthemums in Portugal, France, Columbia, and some other countries. And don’t forget about the number of stems, either; While a dozen flowers is common in the States, in many European countries, an even number of flowers in a bouquet can signify bad luck. Instead, odd numbers of flowers are given, except for bunches of 13, which is considered an unlucky number.

In Finland and Japan, potted plants can also have negative connotations, such as that the relationship is restricted or bound up in a negative way.

Consider a Pre-Trip Pause

Russia has a fascinating cultural tradition to combat the stresses of travel, called the pre-travel "sit down." Everyone in the household, even those not going on the trip—from the dog and the little ones to grandparents—all sit down together in silence for a few moments, followed by well wishes for the journey. It is believed the custom comes from ancient times to trick the domestic spirits so that they wouldn’t follow the traveler on their journey. The continuance of the custom today is believed by some to be connected to the Russian superstition that leaving the house without something and going back for it is bad luck. Whatever the case, it’s never a bad idea to take a break from the hectic pace of trip preparations to slow down for a moment with loved ones.

Some Pointed Advice

Watch where you point that finger when traveling abroad.
    Teymur Gahramanov
Watch where you point that finger when traveling abroad. Teymur Gahramanov

In many Western cultures, pointing at things with the index finger is common; however, it's considered rude and even offensive in many countries such as Malaysia, China, Japan, Indonesia, and Latin America. Instead, use a flat palm with all the fingers pressed together to indicate direction or selection. In addition, the American "thumbs-up" hand signal, used to denote something good or well done, means something totally different in Australia, Greece, or the Middle East, where it translates to a vulgar affront.

Even the "OK" hand symbol, with the index finger and thumb forming a circle, can have a variety of meanings across the globe. In the U.S., it means “okay”, but in Germany, Malta, Brazil and other countries, it’s used to indicate an intimate body part, and in Japan it means “money.” And to confuse matters even further, in France, Portugal and Greece, it simply signifies “no good”—which is perhaps the opposite of what’s intended.

Shake It Out

Many countries use shaking one’s head from side to side to indicate "no", while a nod up and down means “yes.” However, some places have developed a different connotation. In Bulgaria, a single nod upward with a rolling of the eyes means “no” and shaking the head to the side while saying “dadada” is a positive affirmation. It’s similar in Saudi Arabia, where Saudis prefer to shake their head for yes, and in Iran, where dipping one’s chin signals approval.

Tippling Traditions

Sampling the local spirits can be a big part of the fun of traveling. But to avoid becoming the biggest buzzkill in the bar, it helps to know the traditions around the tippling. In many parts of Europe, for example, it’s considered unlucky to toast with water, as it is believed to connote toasting to your own death. So only use alcohol for your "cheers." When drinking in Germany, be sure to look fellow revelers in the eye when toasting; otherwise, as superstition has it, you’ll be doomed with seven years of bad luck in the bedroom. In France, it’s not advisable to bring wine to a dinner party invitation, as is common in the States. The French take their food pairings quite seriously, and the host will choose wines to go with the meal. In Russia, meanwhile, consuming vodka is a way of life, and an offer to drink some should never be refused. Russians also generally prefer their vodka straight, so forgo the mixers.

Finally, no matter where you’re headed, it always help to learn to say "cheers" in the local language.

The above is just a sampling of some of the cultural norms found around the globe. To take your cultural awareness a step further, here are a few additional suggestions:

  • Spend a few minutes watching the locals and let them lead by example.

  • Muslim countries, as well as many Asian ones, are very socially conservative. Therefore, public displays of affection are generally considered inappropriate.

  • Dressing appropriately for the local culture is extremely important. While tank tops and short shorts may be acceptable on the beach in Thailand, they aren’t on the street of just about any city or village—and certainly not in a church, temple, or other religious setting.

  • Learn a few words of the local language no matter how short the trip. Being able to at least say "please" and “thank you” will go a long way toward fostering goodwill with the locals.

Originally written by RootsRated for ExOfficio.