International travel might as well be an open invitation to mess something up. While you’ve spent your entire life learning the rules of society so you can be a polite, considerate citizen, the moment you leave the country you’ll find yourself immersed in a different culture, religion, and societal structure. Suddenly, those manners you’ve accrued may be turned on their head. In the U.S., it’s polite to bring a dish to a potluck or shake hands when you meet someone, but often, behavioral rules like these don’t apply to the places you travel. Not only do most countries have their own policies and expected behaviors, but they may be opposite of what you expect.
While no matter how much effort you put in, you will probably offend someone at some point, it pays to do a little research before you land in a foreign country. These are some of the most common ways American tourists are offensive while traveling.
1. The peace sign
You may love to throw a peace sign in photos, but in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the U.K., the peace sign with your palm facing toward you is the equivalent of flipping someone off, says MSNBC. Be careful here as even if you’re not the peace sign type of guy, you may use this gesture when you’re telling the waiter you need a table for two or are making a “V” for victory. Regardless of your intentions, play it safe and keep your fingers under wraps. You don’t want to end up in a bar fight because of your ignorance.
2. Showing the sole of your shoe
Men in particular have a habit of sitting down and crossing one foot over the opposite knee, which exposes the sole of their shoe to the rest of the room. This may seem like a perfectly normal, casual way to sit and converse with friends, but in most of the Middle East, displaying the sole of your shoe is extremely offensive, says Business Insider. Why? In Arab cultures, the bottom of your shoes are considered dirty. When traveling, it’s best to keep your feet on the floor where they belong.
3. Sitting in the back of a cab
Ever tried to squeeze four or more people in a taxi? When you do, someone definitely has to ride shotgun and you may have felt the cabbie’s annoyance when he was forced to move his newspaper, jacket, or lunch to make room for you. While it’s customary (and even respectful) for Americans to hop in the back of a cab, in Australia, New Zealand, parts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Netherlands, it’s considered rude to not ride up front with the driver.
Unless this is your first time out of the country, you probably already know that unlike our tip-heavy culture in the U.S., tipping isn’t customary in much of the world. However, in Japan and South Korea, tipping isn’t just unexpected, it’s insulting. Workers in these countries feel that they are getting paid to do their job and take pride in doing their job well. Tipping or added incentive comes across as an insult. If you loved your server or had the best massage of your life, give an added thank you, but keep those extra bills in your wallet.
5. Chopstick etiquette
When you’re halfway through your bowl of ramen and need to run to the bathroom or are taking a break from your rice to try another dish, you may set your chopsticks in the bowl and not think anything of it. But in Japan, China, and most of Asia, sticking your chopsticks upright is bad form, says Thrillist. This chopstick placement is only done at funerals when you literally pick and pass the bones out of your dead loved one’s ashes.
Especially when you’re dealing with a language barrier, you may throw in a thumbs-up to let the person know you’re good to go, but this seemingly harmless gesture has various negative meanings across multiple cultures, says New York Post. Curious as to where? The list is impressively long and includes West Africa, South America, Iran, Sardinia, Israel, Thailand, Afghanistan, Italy, and Greece. When traveling, it may just be easier to resort to nodding or smiling rather than the good old American thumbs-up.
7. Using your left hand
When traveling in most of Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East, it’s best to keep your left hand under wraps. In these cultures, the left hand is used in lieu of toilet paper and while you may not follow that particular custom, grabbing a piece of fruit at the market or patting someone on the back with your left hand won’t make you any friends, says Expat Info Desk.
8. Altering your meal
In the U.S., it may seem normal to throw a little extra salt on your eggs or to ask for ketchup to accompany your dish, but in some countries, including Portugal, asking for additional seasonings may offend the cook, warns Independent Traveler. Immediately doctoring up your food tells your host or the chef that it wasn’t prepared well. Before you ask for a condiment, see if there are any on the table. If not, don’t ask.