Learning The Social Norms Of A Foreign Country Before You Visit (& A Few Dozen Examples I Bet You Didn’t Know)

There is little more eye-opening than traveling to another country. With just one or a few more plane rides, your surroundings suddenly change from the familiar to things you may have never experienced before – the language, the money, the architecture, the food, and – this is a biggie – the social norms.

It’s so easy to make a social faux pas when you’re in a foreign country. And yes, of course, the “locals” are going to immediately know you’re “not from there” (it’s more than going to a country where the people’s skin may be a different color than yours – I’m talking about how Americans can be identified by their dress and demeanor, just as I can point out British tourists all over Orlando without hearing them say a word) and might give you a pass if you make a social mistake. But I, for one, would rather fit in when it comes to social norms, if I can. Here are a few things you may or may not have known about how they do things in:

AUSTRALIA

  • If you are alone and take a cab, it’s rude to sit in the back seat. It’s a matter of egalitarianism.

COSTA RICA

  • Used toilet paper must go in the trash bin next to the toilet, not into the toilet itself.

CHINA

  • Because of the importance of family heritage, the Chinese address people by their last name. Calling someone by their first name in China is considered rude and is just not done.
  • If you receive a gift, be generous with your “thank-yous,” take it with both hands and don’t open it until later. Opening it in front of the gift giver makes you look greedy.

ENGLAND

  • Be punctual. Being late is odd and can border on rude. If you cannot help being late to something, contact the people who will be waiting for you.
  • Never cut in lines or queues.
  • Watch your personal space and try to be no less than arm’s length from anyone else.

FRANCE

  • Water, milk, juice, etc. are served at room temperature in France. Asking for ice is considered gauche.
  • Don’t ask for condiments for your meal. If what you’re looking for is not already on the table, do without.
  • Chew with your mouth closed during meals, don’t speak when your mouth has food in it, and don’t slurp anything!

GERMANY

  • Don’t chew gum or put your hands in your pockets while speaking to someone in Germany – it’s considered rude.
  • Table manners are very important – be sure to say “please” and “thank you” often.
  • Be prompt! Being fashionably late will make it appear as if you feel your time is more valuable than the time of the people who are waiting for you.
  • Address people with Mr. or Mrs., followed by their surname (you can even use “Herr” or “Frau” if you’d like)

GREECE

  • Giving a “thumbs up” sign is the American equivalent of the middle finger (or the British equivalent of the V sign)

INDIA

  • Don’t touch someone of the opposite gender in public (even if you’re married to him/her). This includes shaking hands.
  • The left hand frequently replaces toilet paper in this country, so if you use your left hand to eat or greet people, it would be considered vile. If you’re left-handed and planning a visit to India, start learning how to eat right-handed!
  • If you receive a gift, don’t open it until later. Opening it in front of the gift giver makes you look greedy.

ITALY

  • Don’t order cappuccinos after 10:00am. This one confused me, but it turns out Italians strongly believe drinking cappuccino after that time in the morning will cause digestive problems, so if you order one, say, in the afternoon, you’ll get a lot of strange looks (and places that won’t serve it to you).
  • Don’t ask for condiments for your meal. If what you’re looking for is not already on the table, do without.

JAPAN

  • Don’t tip. Ever. It’s considered an insult.
  • It’s rude to blow your nose in public in Japan, even with a tissue or handkerchief.
  • Laughing with your mouth open is impolite and considered horse-like. Cover your mouth.
  • Ultra casual clothing such as flip flops, wrinkly clothing and baseball caps in Japan is considered disrespectful.
  • Don’t ask for condiments for your meal. If what you’re looking for is not already on the table, do without.
  • Slurping your noodles is the norm. The louder, the better. It’s a way of saying how good your food is.

LATIN AMERICA

  • Arriving somewhere on time is bad form and getting there early is a faux pas. It’s better to be late.

MEXICO

  • Women should initiate handshakes with men when meeting, and everyone should avoid making too much eye contact; that can be seen as aggressive and belligerent behavior.
  • If you’re sharing a meal with others, keep your elbows off the table and don’t burp.
  • Don’t make the “OK” gesture. In Mexico, it’s the American equivalent of the middle finger (or the British equivalent of the V sign).

MIDDLE EAST

  • Giving a “thumbs up” sign is the American equivalent of the middle finger (or the British equivalent of the V sign).

MOROCCO

  • The left hand frequently replaces toilet paper in this country, so if you use your left hand to eat or greet people, it would be considered vile. If you’re left-handed and planning a visit to Morocco, start learning how to eat right-handed!

NEW ZEALAND

  • If you are alone and take a cab, it’s rude to sit in the back seat. It’s a matter of egalitarianism.

NORWAY

  • It’s considered rude to drink alcohol you didn’t personally bring to a party.

RUSSIA

  • Don’t refuse vodka or ever mix it with anything else. Many Russians see mixing drinks as a way of decreasing the purity of the country’s favorite alcoholic beverage. And if someone offers you a drink, it’s considered a sign on kindness, so bottoms up!
  • Giving a “thumbs up” sign is the American equivalent of the middle finger (or the British equivalent of the V sign).
  • Don’t smile at strangers – they’ll literally think you’re crazy.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • It’s rude to blow your nose in Saudi Arabia, even with a tissue or handkerchief.

SINGAPORE

  • It’s illegal to chew gum in Singapore.

SOUTH KOREA

  • Don’t tip. Ever. It’s considered an insult.
  • Having one hand in your pocket is considered arrogant.
  • Slurping your noodles is the norm. The louder, the better.
  • Never touch a Korean person while talking to them, and maintain personal space.

SRI LANKA

  • Shaking your head from side to side means “yes.”

SWEDEN

  • Keep personal space in mind and don’t get too close to people.
  • Don’t touch people when you talk to them.
  • When dining out, don’t drink before the host offers a toast, and don’t get drunk.

UNITED STATES

  • Servers, drivers, housekeepers, hair stylists, etc. rely on tips as part of their livelihood. Some of these workers are paid less than minimum wage (as per state and federal laws) so not tipping, or not tipping adequately, cuts into their salary.
  • Have direct eye contact with the person you’re speaking with.
  • Unless the movie theater is crowded, never sit right next to someone.
  • Spitting is unacceptable. If you have a cold and are bringing up phlegm, use a tissue.
  • Burping loudly is not a complement to the chef in the U.S. – do it quietly, cover your mouth and apologize after it’s done.

VENEZUELA

  • You may not want to make the “OK” gesture. In Venezuela, it’s a sign implying homosexuality. Of course, if you happen to be gay, then “OK” away!

WESTERN AFRICA

  • Giving a “thumbs up” sign is the American equivalent of the middle finger (or the British equivalent of the V sign)

Interesting, huh? If you’d like to learn more about the cultural information for whatever country or countries you plan to visit, check out this website – I found its information fascinating!

There are probably a million things I missed – let me know what they are and I’ll try to add them to the list!

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