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5 Cultural Insults to Be Careful of When You’re Abroad

| July 20, 2013 | 9 Comments

Avoid Travel MistakesBelieve it or not, some common things we do in America offend people overseas. That’s right. Some of our most engrained customs — things we don’t even think twice about­­ — could cause a real rift between you and your new overseas business partners. If you’re not careful, a handshake, a hand gesture, or an expected bite of food followed by a grimace could result in an unintentionally offensive insult.

Greetings and Introductions

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Conforming to the customs of the visiting country not only shows that you’ve taken the time to learn about its culture, but is a sign of respect to its hosts. It’s important to show that you care and want to build a friendly relationship.

Overseas countries can be much more traditional than the United States, where specific greetings have been used for hundreds or even thousands of years. For example, many people in India bow with their hands together (in a praying form) and say “Namaste.”  Chinese business associates will shake hands, but be sure to let them initiate.

Exhibiting a willingness to learn and adapt to a country’s culture will go a long way in making your stay enjoyable. Take time to learn the customary greetings before traveling and practice if need be.

Offensive Gestures We Love to Give Everyday

Americans give each other offensive gestures all the time, but that doesn’t mean those same gestures are acceptable or embraced in other parts of the world. It’s important to take note of the common courtesies of the visiting country, so that a case of misunderstanding doesn’t lead to misfortune.

Although waving “hello” (opening the hand with your palm facing out) is one of the most common gestures in American culture, it is very offensive in Greece. In the Middle East, avoid shaking anyone’s hand of the opposite sex or giving the “thumbs up” sign to anyone you come across.

If you’re traveling to Asia, such as a country like Thailand, patting someone on the head is extremely insulting. They revere the head as sacred. Also note that in the United Kingdom the peace sign, a common gesture in the United States, is offensive. When in doubt, leave your hands at your sides and observe others before making any sudden movements that might offend anyone.

Cultural Food Habits to Observe

Whether you’re on a business trip or one of your much deserved vacations, food will no doubt play an integral part of your overseas excursion. It’s important to remain open-minded to trying different foods that may not seem traditional to your own tastes and preferences. In doing so, you’ll show your host that you’re willing to open your palate to their country’s customary dishes.

In the United States, bacon is a staple in the traditional American breakfast. When in the Middle East, avoid comparing pork products to foods from that region, where pigs are deemed unclean. In India, a cow is considered sacred so avoid any beef or steak references. At home we always clean our dinner plates, but doing so is a big insult in many Asian countries. Leaving food on the plate suggests you are full and satisfied by your host.

On a much more serious note, if you eat in public during the Ramadan fast in Saudi Arabia you face the scorn of hungry locals, all of which go without food on this religious holiday. This is such a serious offense it can carry jail time. When in India, never eat with your left hand. It’s considered a dirty practice because of their country’s sanitation issues.

There are many cultural differences between the United States and countries overseas. No matter how comfortable you feel traveling to your host country, it’s always a good idea to research it and familiarize yourself with its customs. Global Edge has extensive cultural information on nearly every country.

Public Displays of Affection

If you’re planning on taking an extended business trip, bringing along a significant other can sometimes help the time pass and allows for some nice quality time outside the home.  Although sometimes frowned upon, Americans generally tolerate public displays of affection. In other countries, not only can this attract negative attention from the people around you because it is considered inappropriate and socially unacceptable, it can be a punishable offense.

To those who aspire traveling to Dubai or Saudi Arabia, be sure to avoid any public displays of affection. This includes kissing, holding hands, and hugging, which will all contribute to extending the length of your stay in a prison facility of either country. In other words, if you really love your significant other, show some restraint.

Over-the-Counter Drugs

Sometimes a long, stressful day of work all we need is a little aspirin.  Although having hard drugs in your possession is punishable in American society, the list of illegal drugs along with their accompanying punishments varies from country to country. Knowing the prescription drugs you can travel with on your trip can literally save your life.

In Southeast Asia, many drugs available over-the-counter in the United States and Europe can carry up to life sentences in prison. With some of the toughest drug laws in the world it would be smart to avoid carrying any prescription medications along for your trip. Many westerners in the past have found out firsthand just how strict and unforgiving the justice system in this region can be.

Traveling, whether locally or abroad, means remaining cautious and aware of the destination you’re visiting. Remember to research your destination of choice to avoid finding yourself in an unfortunate situation or circumstance.

Dylan Adams is a graduate of the University of South Florida with a degree in Finance.  He loves writing and blogging on all things business, marketing and finance related.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

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  • Ashutosh Pathak

    I am from India and it would be really funny if my family made our left handed cousin eat with his right hand. We might have a fiscal deficit, IQ is just fine mate.

  • Mike Darche

    Dylan–some really interesting differences here! On the flip side, Americans tend to be really uncomfortable in other countries when we face unusual gestures. For example, males kissing other males on the cheek in some eastern European countries or hand holding in a few Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. It’s important to keep an open mind and respect cultural norms when you go abroad!

  • http://under30ceo.com MattWilsontv

    Hey Ashutosh, thanks for letting us know about your country. This just goes to show that you need local knowledge, instead of just reading some article or guidebook. It’s great to be aware of these things, but if you really want to understand the culture, you have to go to the place and ask the people.

  • Daniel DiPiazza

    Ha! This reminds me of different cues and signals I had to learn to interpret living in Greece. For instance, “nodding” the head usually means “no”, not “yes” as it does here in the States. Definitely made for some interesting taxi rides…

  • Tyson Hartnett

    I couldn’t go to Japan, because they would think I’m a monster probably. They have lots of subtle communication cues that I wouldn’t understand, and would probably quickly hate me for it.

  • Conor Goulding

    They would just think “oh silly foreigner” and it would not be such a big deal. If you try to pick up things it really impresses them(again like “oh wow the foreigner know how to use chopsticks, did not think he was clever enough”)

  • Conor Goulding

    In regards the peace sign in England ( and Ireland) the peace sign with the palm of the hand facing forward is fine, we get that as being the classic peace sign and use it here, however if you do it with the back of the hand facing the person that is the insult

  • Lauren@GreenGlobalTravel

    Public displays of affection are illegal?! Thank you for posting, I would have gone to jail otherwise. Safe travels :)

  • Sarah Warren

    The peace sign as usually displayed (palm outward) is no more offensive in the UK than anywhere else in the world.

    Turn it round so you’re making a V with your fingers and the back of the hand is facing your interlocutor, and yes, Brits would be insulted, but the peace sign is just the peace sign.