Cultural etiquette varies from country to country, community to community, and can be difficult to bridge the gaps in between. Last week we went over 10 tips to help bridge language barriers, but cultural differences are just as important, if not more, than learning the local language.
Cultural differences can be cause for some awkward moments and misunderstandings. They may leave you confused and another person offended.
Take the time to consult guide books or other sources about common etiquette at your destination, no matter where you are headed. Even if the country speaks English, everyone has different norms about what is and isn't appropriate, so read up!
Let's get started with some common differences that you’ll likely come upon while traveling.
1. Greeting Someone
When you greet someone new do you give them a kiss on one cheek or both? Do you shake hands? Do you hug? Do you bow?
Greetings can vary by country, region, family, etc. so you have to be prepared for anything and adapt to your surroundings. Your gender, age, and even the type of interaction (business vs. social) can impact how you greet someone.
In general here are some guidelines:
Many countries will greet each other with a kiss or kisses. In Spain, you kiss both cheeks starting with their right side (so lean left). When I say kiss, you don’t actually make lip to cheek contact, but rather pressing your right cheek to their right cheek and then the same on the left side. Greeting with a kiss is common between two women and a woman and a man, but not man to man (greet with a handshake).
Kissing is also common in Italy, however, you start by kissing the left cheek first. This can make for some uncomfortable greetings when a Spanish citizen greets an Italian as they may lean towards the same side first and accidently result in a lip lock. Some regions prefer handshakes, so when in doubt, try to read the situation quickly or go for a handshake.
Other countries that kiss include Germany, France, Netherlands, Brazil, and Mexico. Once again, depending on the situation, you may greet another person with a single kiss (or maybe five) in one of these countries. Do a quick google search to find out what the best greeting may be for each.
Argentina is known for being a bit more touchy than many countries, so leaning into a quick and casual hug and kiss on the right cheek.
A handshake may be most appropriate in countries like Greece, the UK, United States, Canada, Turkey, etc.
Many eastern countries prefer bowing as a form of greeting. You’ll find this in Thailand, where they hold their hands together in the prayer pose and bow their head down to the tips of their fingers. You will also bow in a similar fashion when you greet people in India. In China, if you are in a formal setting you will lower your head to show your respect for another person. Otherwise, a handshake will do.
In South Korea, it is important to not make physical contact with the person you are meeting. Just a wave and a smile is perfect.
2. Touching & Personal Space
Touching another person can be a big no-no in certain countries. Personal space can be very different from person to person, culture to culture. Touching another person can make someone very uncomfortable. On the other hand, in some cultures, if you aren’t touching the other person in conversation, you might be considered cold.
Locations like Thailand, Korea, China, and the Middle East, touching can be offensive. Watch locals to see what is common in greetings and conversation. In locations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, men and women are not allowed to interact with one another, so touching is out of the question.
3. Eye Contact
Is direct eye contact appropriate in the country you’re visiting? In the US we are used to making direct eye contact so we don’t appear to be rude, and indicate our interest in a conversation. In Asian countries like Japan and Korea, too much eye contact can make someone uncomfortable.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you don’t make eye contact with someone in Germany while you’re toasting with a beer, you’re said to have seven years of bad luck in the bedroom.
4. Eating & Drinking Customs
Knowing your Left from Right
Eating with your left hand instead of your right hand can signal very different meanings in various cultures. In countries like Morocco, India, African countries, and the Middle East, it is common to use your hands while eating. Since food is often shared in a group, the cleanliness of your hands is just one thing to worry about during dinner. In many of these cultures, using your left hand during a mean is a giant no-no. Your right hand is reserved for eating, while the left hand is for ::ahem:: other daily tasks. If you use your left hand, expect for your table to look at you with disgust.
Silence is Golden
During dinner, it is customary to remain silent during dinner in countries like China, Japan, Thailand, Finland and some African nations. A meal is an occasion revolving around the food and not for small talk about what you did that day.
Making a Toast
In Hungary don’t clink your glasses together when toasting.
As I mentioned earlier, eye contact is important for toasts in Germany, and this is also expected in Denmark and France.
In China, they toast frequently throughout a meal, but never raise your glass higher than anyone older than you.
Pouring a Drink
If you’re in Korea it is acceptable for a woman to pour a man’s drink, but not another woman’s. If you do pour a drink or accept a drink, use both hands to hold the bottle or glass. Japan is similar, so don’t pour your own sake, let someone else pour it for you.
How much to pour? France has some interesting rules against overfilling your glass more than halfway, whereas in China they fill your drink to the very top!
Other Drinking Customs
Every country will have its own unspoken drinking rules, but here are a few other tips to keep in mind. If you’re given a vodka shot in Russia, you better drink that glass in one swallow. It isn’t polite to put down a glass on the table unless it’s empty. Don’t mix it with anything and best believe you’re finishing the whole bottle once it has been opened.
In Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand (to name a few) it is common to take turns ordering a round of drinks for the table. This is known as “shouting” in Australia, so if someone says it’s your turn to shout, you’ll know what they mean.
Every country views tipping in a very different way. Many Asian countries do not tip, while in other countries (like the US) it is very much expected. Some countries will include tips or service fees in the bill, so you don’t have to add anything on at the end of the meal. If the tip is not included, most countries would find that 10-15% for dinner service is acceptable.
Certain hand motions may signal something very different from what you’ve intended. Here are a few common hand gestures you might use in the US that mean something completely different elsewhere.
Thumbs Up Symbol
In West Africa, moving your thumb up and down is like giving someone the middle finger.
Touching your thumb to your index finger can actually symbolize a very different message in Brazil or Turkey. Instead of saying “okay” you’re calling them an asshole.
Pointing your index and middle finger up in a “V” shape actually is the equivalent of the middle finger in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.
If you cross your index and middle finger together, you may think you’re saying “good luck” but in Vietnam this actually is an offensive gesture that is a symbol for a woman’s genitalia.
6. Take off your Shoes
If you’re in Hawaii, Korea, China, Thailand or another country in the South Pacific you are expected to remove your shoes before entering a home. Of course, this can vary from family to family too, so If you see a row of shoes outside the door, you best take off your shoes before entering the house.
7. Timing & Punctuality
If you’re headed to a party, and the host tells you it starts at 8pm, what time do you arrive? In some countries if you show up a half hour after the party starts and that would still be considered early. In Mexico for example, it isn’t unheard of that guests arrive 2-3 hours late for dinner.
If you’re going out to the bars or clubs in some European countries like Spain, you might not leave your house until midnight. Many people stay out until 6am when the metro starts back up again. Same goes for dinner, if you went to a restaurant before 9/10pm you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb.
Depending on the country, even trains may run on their own schedule. Some will leave promptly at the time written on the schedule, and some never seem to run on time, ever.
There are endless factors that you have to consider when trying to blend into any culture, so take the time to read up on these cultural norms. You’ll be thankful you did.
Have you ever encountered an awkward interaction because of a cultural barrier? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!