Thomas Robinson

20 Cultural No-Nos to Avoid When Traveling Abroad

America has its own way of doing things. But those daily habits and rituals might not fly so well when you’re off exploring other countries. What’s totally cool and normal back home might raise some eyebrows elsewhere. So, if you’re traveling abroad, it’s a good idea to ditch a few of those American customs. Here’s a quick list of 20 things to leave behind to ensure you respect other countries’ cultures, unspoken rules, and traditions.


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The practice of tipping and the controversy surrounding its commonplace has long been a subject of contention in the United States. Contrastingly, in many other nations, tipping is not always expected but may be received with gratitude. However, this principle does not extend to South Korea and Japan, where tipping is deemed a breach of etiquette and an affront. In these countries, service staff receive standard wages, and offering gratuities implies a deficiency in their professional dedication.

Blowing Your Nose in Public

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Blowing your nose might not be music to the ears, but it’s generally tolerated in many parts of the world. However, in Japan, France, or the Middle East, blowing your nose in public is considered impolite and offensive. These cultures find the gesture quite distasteful. So, if you see yourself in any of these countries, it’s best to refrain from such actions and seek privacy if necessary.

Calling the U.S.A. “America”

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Referring to your nationality as “American” instead of specifying “United States” or “U.S.A.” while in a South American country can be highly offensive and politically incorrect. According to the World Population Review, South America has a population of approximately 442 million, surpassing the 341 million in the U.S. So, it’s essential to acknowledge this significant difference. Simply put, about 100 million more individuals reside in South America than in the United States.

Expecting Everyone To Speak English

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English is widely spoken globally, and it’s often assumed that people have some level of proficiency in it. Nevertheless, when traveling to a non-English speaking country, presuming everyone understands English can be arrogant and disrespectful. While speaking the local language is not obligatory, it’s courteous to ask, “Do you speak English?” This simple gesture will be welcomed. Additionally, learning a few basic phrases like greetings, common questions, and expressions of gratitude in the native language can make a significant difference to your trip and the interactions you make.

Laughing With Your Mouth Open

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According to Statista, in 2023, Japan welcomed around 25.07 million visitors from abroad, including Americans, showing a significant rebound from the year before due to the pandemic. In the States, it’s fine to burst out laughing, showing off your shiny teeth when a friend cracks a joke. But in Japan, that’s a no-no. Laughing with your mouth wide open is seen as rude and not cool.


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Navigating hand gestures in a foreign land can be challenging for an American. Take the thumbs-up sign, for instance. It signifies approval or positivity in many places, such as the U.S. and U.K. However, it carries a vastly different meaning in Russia, Greece, the Middle East, Latin America, and certain African countries. Similar to giving the middle finger. So, it’s crucial to be mindful of such cultural differences when communicating non-verbally to avoid accidentally causing offense or misunderstanding.

Sitting in the Back of a Cab

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In the United States, it’s customary to automatically take the back seat when entering a taxi, as the front passenger seat is typically reserved for the driver. However, it’s important to consider riding in the front seat when traveling to countries such as Australia, New Zealand, parts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Netherlands. In these places, occupying the back seat as a solo passenger can be perceived as impolite. So, to avoid any misunderstandings, it’s normal to take the front seat when traveling alone.

Accepting Gifts

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In certain cultures, such as Japan, it’s customary to politely refuse gifts a few times before finally accepting them. Similarly, in China, it’s common practice for individuals to decline gifts three times before finally agreeing to receive them. This ritual of declining gifts demonstrates humility and respect for the giver, as it shows reluctance to burden others or appear too eager to accept generosity. So, when interacting with these cultures, it’s important to be aware of and try to follow to these customs.

Women Entering the Restaurant First

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Italy maintains the courteous tradition of allowing women to enter doors first, but there’s a little twist when entering restaurants. In this case, the practice is actually set aside. So, if you’re in Italy and about to enter a restaurant, it’s perfectly fine to go ahead and let whoever is closest to the door enter first, regardless of gender. It’s just one of those small cultural nuances to be aware of while traveling.

Asking for a Condiment in a Restaurant

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In America, condiments are popular; it’s no surprise there. But asking for soy sauce or ketchup might not be appreciated in countries with strong culinary traditions, such as Italy, France, Spain, and Japan. It’s seen as an insult to the chef, suggesting their food isn’t flavorful enough. So, if you’re dining in one of those places in one of those countries mentioned, it’s best to enjoy the meal as it is without asking for extra condiments.

Drinking Coffee On-The-Go

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It’s common in America and the U.K. to grab coffee on the run as you head to work. But if you find yourself in Italy or Portugal, you’ll notice a different scene. There, it’s rare to see folks sipping their coffee while walking, driving, or working. Instead, they have a more leisurely approach to coffee, preferring to enjoy it in cozy local cafes, where they can chat with friends and savor the experience. This European custom might benefit some stressed Americans on their way to work. Having 5 or 10 minutes to enjoy your coffee could be the difference between a good and bad day.

Refusing Food or Drinks

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Declining or refusing food in the United States is often seen as a modest gesture, showing consideration for the host. However, refusing food or drink is viewed quite differently in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries. It’s considered highly offensive and a breach of etiquette. In these cultures, hospitality is highly valued, and declining an offered meal or beverage can be interpreted as rejecting the host’s generosity and hospitality, which is not taken lightly.

Hands in Pockets

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It’s a common habit for people to put their hands in their pockets while engaging in conversation, perhaps because they’re unsure what to do with them. However, this action is interpreted as disrespectful and arrogant in countries such as Turkey and North Korea. So, it’s essential to refrain from this gesture when conversing in these cultural contexts to avoid unintentionally causing offense.

Doing Anything With Your Left Hand

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In countries such as India, much of Africa, and the Middle East, using your left hand is viewed as taboo and unclean. These cultures reserve the left hand solely for personal hygiene tasks. Therefore, activities like eating or shaking hands with the left hand are considered disrespectful and repulsive. According to Healthline, about 10% of Americans are left-handed. If you fall into this category, it might be wise to start practicing with your right hand before visiting any of these countries.

Doing the Devil’s Horn Sign

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Flashing the “devil horns” hand gesture in the United States typically signals your love for rock and heavy metal music. However, this hand symbol carries a drastically different meaning in places like Spain, Italy, Portugal, and certain parts of South America. There, it’s interpreted as a sign that a man’s wife is being unfaithful. So, if you find yourself in these countries, especially at a rock concert, it’s crucial to be mindful of how this gesture might be perceived to avoid any unintended misunderstandings or offense.

Finishing Your Food

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While finishing your meal entirely is generally encouraged and appreciated in America, the same cannot be said for countries like China, the Philippines, Thailand, and Russia. In these places, leaving some food on your plate is customary. Consuming every last bite might convey to the host that they haven’t served you enough, which could be perceived as disrespectful. So, when dining in these countries, it’s wise to leave some food behind to show appreciation for the meal.

Men Being Topless

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While baring some skin is generally acceptable in numerous countries for both men and women, going topless in South Korea is strongly discouraged. In South Korean culture, it’s customary for both men and women to wear shirts, even at the beach. The practice of going topless is considered inappropriate and goes against societal norms. So, if you’re visiting South Korea, following this cultural expectation and keeping covered up accordingly is important.

Asking Personal Questions

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In the United States, it’s normal to kick off a conversation by asking someone about their job or where they live. But in places like the Netherlands, this approach is seen differently. Over there, it’s considered pigeonholing and even classist to jump straight into those questions. So, if you’re in the Netherlands, maybe ease into the conversation with a different topic to avoid any unintended offense. Unless they give up the information themselves.

Being Fashionably Late

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Punctuality varies across different countries and cultures, and while arriving a few minutes late is generally tolerated in the United States, it’s a different story in countries like Germany. There, being even slightly late is considered rude, as they have a strict adherence to punctuality. In Germany, arriving late is perceived as disrespectful, signaling a lack of regard for others’ time. So, if you’re in Germany, it’s crucial to prioritize punctuality to avoid causing offense or inconvenience among your German friends.

Being on Time

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On the flip side, arriving punctually in places like Argentina or Canada might be seen as a bit rude. In these countries, it’s customary to be fashionably late, though not excessively. Being right on time could be interpreted as impolite or overly eager. So, if you find yourself in Argentina or Canada, aim for a slight delay when attending appointments or gatherings to align with local customs and avoid standing out.

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