You may not have mastered the local language, but try to remember these etiquette points when you’re traveling. Everything from a simple hand gesture to how you drink can offend people in other countries—so read on and make friends, not enemies, abroad!
Never Fill Your Own Glass
Thirsty in Japan? When you’re drinking alcohol with others, it’s considered polite for people to serve each other rather than refilling your own glass. If your cup is empty, and you want more, try refilling a friend’s—hopefully, they’ll decide you need a top-up, too!
Oh, you think you’re fancy, huh? If you’re catching a cab alone in Australia or New Zealand and climb into the back seat, the driver is going to think that you’re stuck up. Solo passengers should sit in the front of the taxi with the driver.
Thumbs Down on Your Thumbs Up
Keep your thumbs to yourself if you’re visiting Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Italy, or Greece—your finger of approval is basically telling a local “up yours.”
Don’t Eat With Your Left Hand
Many cultures that eat with their hands reserve one hand, the left hand, for use in the bathroom. So if you dig into communal food with that hand, expect your fellow diners to lose their appetites in the Middle East, India, and parts of Africa.
USA, not America
“I’m from America.” If you say this in South America, you’re implying that only the United States is “America,” when of course anyone from South America could also be called American. Be more politically correct and tell someone you’re from the United States.
If you send someone an even number of flowers in Ukraine, you’re not sending the romantic or get well message you intended. Even numbers of flowers are reserved for funeral bouquets, so be sure to send an odd number to your Ukrainian friends.
V is Not for Victory
You think you’re ordering “two” drinks at the pub or wishing peace to someone, but in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, you’re basically flicking someone off. Two fingers with the palm inward is insulting—flip your hand around so the palm is facing outward to communicate a more peaceful meaning.
Avoid pointing the bottom of your feet at anyone in Asia, India, and the Middle East. Feet are considered the lowest and most unclean part of the body in many Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist countries, and pointing your soles at someone is disrespectful.
Round and Round It Goes
If you find yourself sharing a pint with a group of Brits or Australians, be sure to know the rules of the round. Don’t buy too many or not enough rounds—not standing your turn makes you look stingy and rude, whereas buying too many rounds makes you a showoff. Also, don’t order the most expensive drink at the pub when someone else is buying and then water for yourself when you’re footing the bill—everyone sees what you’re doing!
Here’s a Tip: Don’t Do It
Whereas in America (sorry, the United States) you’ll offend both the server and your dining companions if you don’t tip, you can offend people in Japan and South Korea if you do tip. In fact, you’re more likely to have your tip returned to you, with the waiter saying that you left too much money. (Sometimes, a service fee is already added into the bill, which is obviously okay to pay.) Read and download our expansive Tipping Guide for more info on this faux pas.
More from SmarterTravel:
- How to Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees
- 10 Things to Pack That Will Save You Money
- The Ultimate Packing List
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2012. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.