It happens to the best of us: you’re on vacation minding your own business only for a local or your travel partner to whisper something in your ear. Cover up. Don’t say that. Don’t do that. The shame sets in and you comply.
“Taboo behaviors are an area that is so vast because you can break it down into dining, dress and greeting,” said Dean Foster, author of Bargaining Across Borders and co-host of the podcast Oops, Your Culture’s Showing! “Every country has its own habits but sometimes you’re forgiven if you don’t get it.”
For example, in Italy it’s considered crass if you twirl your pasta against a spoon instead of the inside of a bowl. But Foster said that it’s not so much of a taboo as a habit, so they’d let you know and hope you get it right next time. “What’s taboo will really get under their skin,” he said.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet to respecting the culture of your chosen destination.
When it comes to dining in countries that use chopsticks like China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam or Korea, chopstick misuse is a major faux-pas. Foster said it’s crucial that you refrain from separating your chopsticks on each side of your plate like you might do in Western countries. You have to keep them together. “It’s like laying a curse on somebody. It’s bad luck,” he said.
What’s more is that there’s a stigma against those who hold their chopsticks at the tip. According to Foster, parents first teach their young children to hold their chopstick at the tip, and as they grow and mature, they learn to hold them higher up. “The closer to the tip you hold them the less well-bred you’re considered, and the further away the more refined you are,” said Foster. “It’s going to indicate something about you. It might not have any meaning to you but it might to your guests or hosts.”
In most Asian countries, your meal is served with a bowl of rice. Under no circumstances should you place your chopsticks in the bowl standing up, because it’s a symbol of death. “When someone dies, traditionally they would serve rice into the dead person’s rice bowl with chopsticks standing up near the coffin as their final meal before they go off to the other side,” said Foster. Sure, accidents happen, but he warned that if you do it “it will stop everything dead.”
Foster noted that many cultures are conservative at their core. With the exception of resorts and beaches, Caribbean cultures are rooted in modesty. “It goes back to more traditional Catholic ways of doing things and the basic nature of the country, which is agricultural. Men are in the fields and women are in the markets. It’s a more conservative approach to gender relations,” Foster said. That means that as soon as you go into town, it’s important to dress conservatively, so cover up your bathing suit even when it’s hot out.
In the Middle East, conservative dressing applies to foreigners as well. If you’re a woman traveling, there’s no need to wear a hijab, but do be prepared to cover your head at any time, especially if you plan on visiting a place of worship. “It’s a sign of respect, and a woman’s responsibility to not incite the passions of the men,” he said. Whether or not you agree with this practice, it’s bound to come up during your travels.
In an American greeting, you’d often say hello, and then casually ask about the family of the person you’re greeting. “In China, that’s an embarrassing and loaded question because of up until recently the one-child rule,” said Foster.
In China and Japan, shaking hands is seen as an invasion of personal space — and the same goes for any type of public physical contact like a hug. Instead, you would bow. While Foster said many citizens in these countries have learned to shake hands to appease Westerners, they are not particularly comfortable with it. He said that certain countries like Korea are a little more lax when it comes to physical contact, but you should always look for cues and consent before you greet them in a physical manner.
In Africa, countries both religious and less so, men are typically not supposed to touch women in public. If he extends his hand, she is under no obligation to accept it, and might instead place her hand on her heart to acknowledge him.
Casual small talk is also considered insulting in many African countries. Instead, you want to engage in meaningful conversation. “They might ask you ‘How is your family, how are your aunts, uncles, nephews and animals?’ This greeting has to be reciprocated,” said Foster. “It’s a sign of respect to inquire about all the important people in their life. If you leave someone out they’ll feel like you didn’t care about them. It’s very nice because it forces you to take the time to acknowledge the other person.”
In Hispanic Latin America, it’s important to remember correct naming patterns. “Let’s say you greet someone and you’re introduced to Jorge González-López. You can’t use their given name. You would have to call him Señor González-López,” he said. The idea is that you wouldn’t call him only by Lopez, because that’s the mother’s last name, which is deemed traditionally less important than the father’s. Omitting the father’s last name, even though it comes first, is considered disrespectful.
In the Middle East, and especially countries in which Islam is the dominant religion, the left hand is considered the taboo hand because it is seen as unclean and reserved for personal hygiene, according to Foster. Refrain from greeting or touching anyone with your left hand for any reason, or even passing important documents or eating with it (if you’re eating with your hands, which is common in the Middle East, you would use your right hand both to rip off a piece of pita and dip it in hummus, for example). The practice is taken so seriously that left-handed children are taught to use their right hand in public, he said.