Let’s face it: vacationing Americans don’t always have the best reputations abroad. Of course, a few loudmouths obnoxiously questioning other countries’ customs earn most of that bad press. But, sometimes, travelers just aren’t aware of the subtle differences in culture—and that can grind the natives’ gears.
Studying and observing the difference between the United States and Europe, Asia, or South America, for instance, can go a long way in making sure you don’t leave a wave of head-shaking locals in your wake. We’ve compiled 20 things that might seem like good manners in the United States, but can land you in hot water abroad!
1. Drinking someone’s alcohol: In the United States, if you bring a six-pack to a party—assuming it’s for sharing—you’re usually cleared to go to town on any other beer at the event. In Norway, though? Forget about it. BYOB or you’re staying sober.
Mads Nissen / National Geographic
2. Asking what someone does: There are certain small-talk go-tos in the United States, like asking someone what he or she does for a living. Avoid this in social-welfare countries like the Netherlands—it’s seen as totally classist!
Geoff Sowry / Flickr
3. Sitting in the back of a cab: For some, making small talk with a cabbie can be akin to a prison sentence, so they squeeze into the very back seat. Don’t try it Australia or parts of the U.K., though, where you should consider riding shotgun.
4. Blowing your nose: Those bats in the belfry are going to have to wait in China, Japan, and France. Not only is blowing your nose considered gross, to them, it’s totally disgusting. You might as well just sneeze one someone’s face while you’re at it.
5. Keeping your shoes on: When you’ve been traveling, letting your aching dogs out to howl might just fill the room with the smell of foot sweat. But in some places like Japan and the Caribbean, you’re expected to pop your kicks off regardless.
6. Tipping: Sending a few extra bucks to a server, delivery person, or other performer of tasks might be the usual in the United States, but in many parts of Europe and Asia, workers feel degraded if you tip them. Turns out, their salaries are more than sufficient!
7. Laughing without covering your mouth: In Japan, locals would applaud your politeness if you were to laugh when someone made a joke. Opening your mouth and showing off your teeth to do so, though, is seen as rude and horse-like.
8. Cleaning your plate: In the United States, if you don’t clear you plate of every scrap of food, you might be considered wasteful. Meanwhile, in China, cleaning our plate is telling the hosts they didn’t give you enough to eat!
9. Helping yourself: A classic United States family meal might involve the hosts making a few big bowls or plates of food and then telling their guests to help themselves. In some Asian cultures, the host’s job is to entertain guests, which means serving the food, too.
Jillian Guyette / Philly Mag
10. Opening presents right away: Pretty much every kid—heck, even most adults—has happily torn open a pile of presents at a birthday party or other event. But if you open presents around your guests in Asian countries, and you’ll be seen as rude and greedy.
Kylan Robinson / Flickr
11. Not declining gifts: In Japan, failing to “refuse” a gift in the first place could earn a few raised eyebrows in your direction. Sometimes you have to refuse a gift three times before it’s no longer rude to accept it. Doing this demonstrates humility.
12. Hugging: Everyone loves hugs, right? No, not really. In fact, in countries like China, Thailand, or Korea, an unwelcome hug is a serious violation of personal space. Even in the States, it’s usually best to ask if it’s okay before hugging someone.
13. Using your left hand: It doesn’t matter if you’re a lefty or not. In certain parts of the globe (primarily the Middle East), your southpaw does all the wiping in the bathroom, so using it to eat or shake hands is not cool.
14. Giving a thumbs up: In the United States, we view a thumbs up as a sign of approval or a compliment for a job well done. However, in places like Russia or the Middle East, giving someone a thumbs up is akin to giving them a middle finger!
Dodgeball / 20th Century Fox
15. Showing the soles of our feet: Most residents of majority Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist nations might gasp in horror if they see the bottoms of your feet. They are, after all, the lowest and dirtiest part of your body. For this reason, Muslims often wash their feet before prayer.
chrisford585 / Imgur
16. Eating somewhere that doesn’t serve food: Chomping on pizza while crossing the street may be all the rage in the States, but if you take that habit to Japan or Rwanda, look out! Eating outside of a restaurant, bar, or in your own home can be a no-no.
17. Complimenting someone: In some African cultures, complimenting something can be interpreted as you saying that you want the thing that you are praising. Imagine walking into your friend’s house and telling him you want his couch!
18. Calling the United States “America”: As you might recall from grade school, there’s a North America and a South America—really! Bestowing “America” only to the northern-most continent doesn’t go over well in South America.
19. Arriving on time: In countries like Mexico or Argentina, showing up to an event on time can earn you a (metaphorical) shove out the front door. You may be inconveniencing the host; besides, not everyone has a car to arrive at a specific time.
Silent Dinner Party
20. Being late: Don’t get carried away with your snooze button just yet. In Germany, locals might be a bit peeved if you show up fashionably late to a party. To them, you’re tacitly saying that your time is more valuable than anyone else’s.
Isn’t it crazy to know that what one country views as simple good manners, another views as being a total insult? Good thing we’ve got that all sorted out now!
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