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10 Lessons in Etiquette From Around the World

When you are traveling it is important to be aware of the etiquette and social cues that are specific to the region you’re in. Similar to how there are certain expectations within your household and the United States, there are taboos in every region of the world that you should be aware of to avoid offending someone. Here are ten lessons in etiquette to be aware of to avoid being ignorant of other cultures and their respective manner-practices.

1. Belching

In areas such as the United States, belching at a family dinner may be okay, but within the public sphere, you may get some unamused looks if you were to belch aloud. In countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and China it is entirely normal to belch – especially after a meal has concluded. In specific areas belching is even considered a compliment and a sign of contentment.

2. Slurping Soups/Noodles

In Asian culture, it is commonly accepted and appreciated if you slurp your noodles or your soupy dishes such as miso or pho. Slurping your noodles is an impolite gesture in other areas, such as the U.S., but in areas like Japan, it indicates that you are thoroughly enjoying your meal. It can be seen as a sign of appreciation or compliments to the chef.

3. Shaking Hands

Handshake etiquette around the world changes from region to region. More often than not shaking hands is a universal acceptable greeting, but certain areas have specific handshaking guidelines and expectations that are important to be aware of. Examples of handshake taboos are:

  • In China, handshakes include a light grip followed by a bow. If there are multiple people you are expected to greet according to descending age. Most Asiatic countries follow the same guidelines surrounding shaking hands;
  • The Philippines expects a weak grip and direct eye contact and is among the few Asiatic countries that do not bow;
  • France shakes hands swiftly and gently and is commonly followed by a kiss on both cheeks;
  • In Thailand, shaking hands is avoided. A gesture called a “wai” (placing hands together and bowing) is used instead;
  • Russia prohibits members of the opposite sex to shake hands unless it is within the parameters of business;
  • In areas like Brazil and Mexico, you can expect lingering handshakes with strong eye contact. Men may hug another man, and women may kiss another woman on the cheek;
  • Women avoid shaking another woman’s hand. If a situation arises wherein a male and a female are greeting each other, it is important for the women to offer their hand to the male, not the other way around.

4. Tipping

In the United States when you dine out, it is expected that you leave a tip on top of what you are charged for the meal in order to show appreciation for the service. While the U.S. standard for tipping ranges from 15-20% of the meal cost, the following areas expect no tip at all:

  • Australia;
  • Brazil;
  • China;
  • Japan;
  • Korea;
  • Switzerland.

In some areas, tipping is not accepted because gratuity is considered in the cost of the meal. In other regions, exceptional service is something that is expected and that is not worthy of gratitude or compensation.

5. Hand Gestures and Signals

Hand gestures can mean one thing in one region, and absolutely nothing to another. As such, it becomes important to be aware of the gestures that can cause offense around the world.

  • In areas such as Belgium, Italy, and Tunisia, brushing your hand underneath your chin — also called a chin flick — means “get lost,” while in France the gesture elicits attention or applause from onlookers.
  • The fig — clenching your fist with your thumb placed between your pointer and middle finger — means the equivalent of “screw you.” In other countries, it refers to female anatomy.
  • Since Shakespearean times, flicking your thumb from the back of your front teeth has been a symbol of the f-word in many European countries.
    In Arabic regions pointing your right index finger to your left hand while your fingers are grouped together is called the “five fathers” which refers to your mother being promiscuous.
  • Crossing your fingers is used to wish for luck in the U.S. In Vietnam it refers to female anatomy and it is very offensive if directed towards someone.
  • The commonly known “rock on” symbol is a gesture that implies that an individual’s significant other is being unfaithful.
    Giving someone a thumbs up in the U.S. is a sign of approval while in Australia and Canada it means “up yours” or “sit on it”.

6. Clothing

Clothing that is acceptable in one region, or specific setting, may not be in another region. There are countries with extremely strict dress codes. Some of the examples of clothing restrictions include:

  • In North Korea, women found wearing trousers can be punished with not only fines, but also forced labor;
  • If you are touring the Vatican in Italy, it is impolite to wear hats inside and it is frowned upon to remove your shoes in front of another individual.
  • Flashing even a centimeter of the flesh is a criminal act in Saudia Arabia. Women are clad in traditional clothing called the niqab and the abaya;
    Uganda, women found wearing skirts above the knee can risk being incarcerated;
  • Most ancient attractions in Rome prohibit shorts and bare shoulders; one of the few exceptions to this rule is if you choose to tour the Colosseum;
  • Spain prohibits driving with sandals as well as leaving the beach still sporting your bathing suit.

7. Finishing Your Food

If you grew up in the United States, your parents most likely praised you for joining the clean plate club. In countries such as Kenya or Germany finishing your food is comparable to giving your compliments to the chef. In regions such as China, Afghanistan, and India finishing the plate is insulting and it displays that you did not get enough food.

8. Tardiness

Most individuals would consider arriving late as an inconvenient insulting gesture, but punctuality around the world varies. For example in many areas, you are only required to be on time if the appointment is phrased “English time.” Being on time isn’t a concern in the following areas:

  • Brazil;
  • Ghana;
  • Greece;
  • Kazakhstan;
  • Malaysia;
  • Mexico;
  • Morocco;
  • Nigeria;
  • Russia;
  • Saudi Arabia.

There are plenty of areas where punctuality is of the utmost importance. Places such as India, Japan, and South Korea value timeliness. Germany even sets a precedent to arrive ten minutes prior to the scheduled meeting time.

9. Dining

There is a surplus of dos and don’ts surrounding dining etiquette around the world. Parameters focus on a variety of dining factors from eating techniques to tipping norms. Some of the unspoken rules include:

  • Regions within the Middle East associate eating with your left hand with uncleanliness. This is still the case if your left hand is your dominant hand.
  • In France, bread is a perfectly acceptable utensil, but splitting the bill is considered unsophisticated.
  • Using utensils in Mexico is considered arrogant or stuck-up behavior, and in Chile touching any part of your meal is prohibited.
  • Requesting additions (i.e. cheese, salt, pepper, etc.) is considered an insult to the chef’s cooking abilities in many areas.
  • Resting your hands in your lap is frowned upon in Russia while resting your elbows on the table is bad etiquette within the U.S.
  • In Egypt, it is an unspoken rule that you fill up your neighbors’ glass when it is half-empty or less and vice versa. You are not to fill your own glass.

10. Etiquette Reminders

Manners and etiquette are part of every society. Formalities are learned throughout life, there is no class for it. In most cases, if you are a tourist, locals are fairly forgiving of unfamiliar etiquette. That said, prior to visiting an area that you are unfamiliar with, you should educate yourself on social norms in the area to avoid offending locals and to enhance communication.

For more information or to arrange a tour check out What a Life Tours or contact us by phone +39 06 88975757/+39 334 7273299 (WhatsApp), or email at info@whatalifetours.com!

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