Etiquette mishaps are all too common when traveling abroad, and not all of them are immediately evident, like complementing a Londoner on their "pants." Many behaviors and gestures we consider to be friendly and perfectly polite Stateside are downright offensive in other countries, and this can lead to some unfortunate misunderstandings. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean cross-cultural blunders are inevitable. With a little insider’s knowledge, you can avoid some of the most common cultural mistakes that have caught out countless Americans on their overseas adventures.
It’s tempting to put on a happy face when you’re traveling abroad — after all, you are on vacation. But that doesn’t mean you should flash a smile at every person you pass in the street. In most cases, they won’t see you as a friendly person just trying to spread a bit of joy. They’ll think you’re either insane or coming on to them.
In countries like Russia, for example, smiles are reserved exclusively for friends and family. For that reason, strangers will wonder why you’re sharing this awkwardly intimate expression of joy with them and probably give you a wide berth!
Skipping out on the tip is unspeakably rude here in the States, even if the service was less than stellar.
In many countries, however, the exact opposite is true. Believe it or not, in places like South Korea and Japan, offering a tip is a slap in the face to service workers. It implies they aren’t being paid enough to do their jobs.
In many other countries, tipping for exceptional service is appreciated, but not expected. Taxi drivers won’t mind if you let them keep the change, for example, but dropping 20% tips everywhere you go is unnecessarily flashy and you might as well sew an American flag to your chest.
If we’re walking toward a curb, we know traffic is going to eventually slow to a stop to let us cross. That’s because here in the U.S., drivers are obligated by law to yield to pedestrians at intersections.
The same cannot be said for places like France, where the road is solely the cars’ domain and you’re at serious risk of being run over if you don’t abide by this expectation. Not only do drivers not expect anyone on the road, but they also tend to drive much faster because they know they have the right of way. The only way to ensure you’ll make it to the other side of the street in one piece is at designated crosswalks with traffic signals.
Depending on whose house we’re visiting, we don't think twice about leaving our shoes on when we walk through our friends' and families' front doors in the U.S.
In many other countries — like Sweden, for example, and even Canada — wearing outdoor footwear on indoor floors would be unthinkable. Shoes are considered outerwear only, so they come straight off at the same time as coats and jackets and don’t go on again until you head out the door.
In Japan, they take the shoe rules a step further and have separate “toilet slippers” reserved exclusively for the bathroom.
Receiving a Christmas or birthday present with anything less than unbridled enthusiasm is considered highly offensive here in the U.S., lest we hurt Great Aunt Doris’s feelings. In places like China, however, that same eagerness would be highly embarrassing, not only for the gift giver, but for everyone else in the room. No matter how much you appreciate the generous gesture, it’s customary to refuse a gift three times before finally, begrudgingly, accepting it.
In America, finishing our meal is a compliment to the chef because it shows everyone how much we enjoyed it. If we don’t finish every morsel on our plates, our host might wonder if something was wrong with the food.
The opposite is true in places like Thailand and Ukraine, where they take an empty plate as a sign that you’re still hungry because they failed to offer you enough food or they skimped on portion sizes. For that reason, it’s polite to leave a few scraps on your plate even if you’re loving every bite.
And speaking of flipped-around table manners — in Japan, it’s considered rude not to slurp your soup.
Here’s some advice that will come in handy on your travels: gestures mean very different things in different places. Friendly hand signals we use every day in America can be as insulting as flipping the bird depending on where you’re doing them. In Iran, for example, the thumbs-up sign means “up yours.”
In Brazil, the seemingly innocent “okay” sign means quite the opposite.
Showing your palm in a “stop” gesture is going to start something nasty in Greece.
And the UK, holding up the “reverse V” — a backward two-fingered peace sign — will bring you just the opposite of that.
In the States, toasting your friends or family is usually a riotous affair spiked with spilled drinks and lots of loud laughter.
In Eastern European countries like Georgia, however, they take toasting very seriously. Disrupting a toast in any way — even putting your glass down as the host is speaking — is considered unthinkably rude.
We Americans expect nothing less than a bottomless cup of coffee, water, or soft drink when we go out to eat. Wait staff constantly swarm by our tables to refill our glasses without a second thought, and we can swan up to soda fountains to top up our tonics as many times as our hearts desire.
That kind of magic doesn’t exist in Europe, where you quite literally get what you pay for. Ask for more, and you’ll see those refills right on your bill. It's not unusual to have to pay for individual condiment packages in some places, either.
Everyone likes to be comfortable, but like many things, we Americans have turned being "comfortable" into an extreme sport. After all, why take off our coziest clothes if we don't have to? By wearing our pajamas in public, we're letting everyone know we're not trying to impress anyone. This IDGAF fashion sense we have is so strong that sporting anything fancier than athleisure on our errands makes people wonder what special gala we're on our way to afterward.
Outside of America, however, the just-rolled-out-of-bed look is not considered a very good look. Most cultures, particularly in Europe, place a higher priority on dressing up than we do and prefer not to wear their sleepwear on the streets.