Did you know there are actually rules on how to use chop sticks in Asian countries? Or that in some places it is considered unsanitary and disrespectful to eat with your left hand? And you thought packing was stressful! Use this as a guide to steer clear of heckling, embarrassment, offending the dead, and having an encounter with the devil.
Do Not Show Public Displays of Affection in Ghana and Sudan in Africa
While in Europe you see couples, and possibly strangers, making out all over the place, you would be surprised to even see a husband and wife in Ghana or Sudan showing any public displays of affection. Even hugging between members of the opposite sex should be used with caution. Many Ghanians will find American insistence on hugging embarrassing. Moreover, In South Africa, it is against the law for anyone under the age of 16 to take part in any public displays of affection. This has led to large protests across the country by teenagers, culminating in kiss-a-thons in public places.
Do Not Give the Peace Sign With Your Palm Facing You in New Zealand
While many people will perform this gesture with the intention of conveying “V” for Victory, the number two, or “Peace”, it does not always translate well. When traveling through New Zealand with a native friend, I posed for a picture while holding up two fingers with my palms facing me. Luckily, I was giving this sign to a friend of mine and not a stranger and they informed me that in New Zealand the gesture means “go screw yourself”. This also goes for when you are visiting Australia and the UK. This is a good tip for travelers who want to make friends with locals, not be knocked out by them.
Do Not Eat With Your Left Hand When Dining in Morocco (And Any Other Muslim Country, For That Matter)
While us Westerners may get away with being ambidextrous at home, eating with the left hand is considered very disrespectful and even dirty, as the left hand is used for cleaning and the right hand is used for eating. When I was out for lunch with my Moroccan tour guide, I ordered couscous and beef. While I am right-handed, I often will use both of my hands to eat with, especially if I am taking notes on something. When I switched from using the right hand to the left hand to write something down, I was quickly scolded. My guide also explained to me that in the history of the religion of Islam it was made a rule to only eat with your right hand, and that eating with the left is sinful. I knew that cheating and stealing were sinful, but had no idea that simply placing something in your mouth with your left hand could get you in trouble, as well.
Do Not Talk About “Rooting” for your Team in Australia
While this expression may seem innocent, it is another example of communication that does not translate well between cultures. When studying abroad in Australia, a group of us went to watch a soccer game at the college we were attending. Some people in the group were Aussies, and when I told them that I would be “rooting” for the gold team, I received a mix of shocked stares and hysterical laughter. Apparently, “rooting” in Australia does not mean the same thing as in America. What I had told them, to their understanding, was that I would be having sex for the gold team and basically prostituting myself for their success. I’m sure you can guess who became the butt of the jokes that night.
Do Not Be Naive About Chop Sticks When Dining in Japan
Did you know that in Japan even the dead get to eat? If you didn’t, you probably are behind on your Japanese chopstick etiquette. A girlfriend of mine used to live in Japan, so she knows first hand how important it is to know the rules of using your chop sticks. “The most offensive thing I can think of is when eating with chopsticks in Japan, never stick your sticks straight up and down into your food and leave them there. That is how they offer food to the dead,” she explains.
Moreover, when someone is giving you some food from a dish or bowl with chop sticks, don’t take it with your own chop sticks. Instead, hold up your dish so they can place the food on it. This custom has to do with the Japanese funeral rites where the relatives of the deceased pick the remaining unburned bone fragments from the cremated ashes with chop sticks. They then hand it to another relative, who take it with their chop sticks and place it in the urn. At no other times should items be passed from chop stick to chop stick.
When asked what the repercussions would be for someone who committed this type of taboo in Japan, my girlfriend replied, “The Japanese people around you would be appalled and they might say something to correct you.”
Imagine the anxiety that people must feel just trying to “pass the rice”?
Do Realize the Inquisitive Nature of Locals in India
In India, “minding your own business” is not a motto that locals live by. When interacting with locals in India, even if you have just met, be prepared to be asked certain questions that may not feel appropriate, pertaining to topics such as marital status, weight or income. Instead of being offended, think of it as a lesson in cultural immersion and be thankful that you are getting to experience this custom first-hand. Ask some questions of your own, and you may learn some very interesting facts about the Indian way of life.
Do Cover Your Shoulders and Knees When Visiting a Temple in Thailand
When visiting a temple in Thailand, it is very important to dress and act appropriately, meaning that shoulders and knees should be covered. Even if you are not a Buddhist, it is still always a good idea to show respect to the culture you are visiting. Moreover, you will most likely not be allowed to even enter these places of worship unless you are in modest dress. A friend of mine tried to enter a temple in Thailand wearing a thick-strap tank top and was made to wear sheets of paper around her upper body to cover-up. Needless to say, she would have saved herself a lot of discomfort and embarrassment if she would have just worn a t-shirt.
Do Dress Modestly If You Are A Woman in Dubai
A friend of mine’s boss was in Dubai one autumn and was shocked at how strict the police are about conservative dress. Law enforcement offices would actually issue tickets to local women who wore short shorts and skirts in order to protect their virtue. While you will not get a summons if you are clearly a tourist, it is always nice to respect the local culture as well as not stick out as clearly being a foreigner.
Do Not Wear a Soccer Jersey Unless it is For the Home Team in Spain
The Spanish are notorious for being hardcore fans of soccer, or futbol, as the locals say. A friend of mine was in Madrid last summer and wore a Manchester United jersey to a local pub. While he didn’t expect to receive praise and pats on the back from the locals, he also did not expect the passionate reaction of disgust he received. “I was getting heckled and yelled at,” he recalls. “I definitely will never wear another teams jersey again while in Spain. I went right out and got myself a Madrid jersey.”
If you can scare a guy out of wearing his favorite team’s sports jersey, you know that it must be a taboo.
Do Not Wear a Bikini in Vietnam
In Vietnam, conservative dress is important for women, even at the beach. I learned this the hard way when traveling through Cat Ba Island in Vietnam and, after swimming in clothing instead of a bathing suit for the prior few weeks, decided I was going to forgo local customs and wear a bright yellow bikini instead. Not only did I receive a lot of unwanted attention and stares, but the locals began snapping photos of me and coming over to my towel to try to talk to me. I actually felt like a celebrity, but more of the “Oh my Goodness! Britney Spears flashed the paparazzi” kind then the more classy variety of “Wow, Beyonce looks stunning in that designer gown”.