There is one thing of which many a traveller falls foul. Whether you’re on a luxury weekend city break, or on a year-long expedition along the road less travelled through sparsely populated corners of the world – it’s not knowing when you might accidentally insult somebody.
For all you know, scratching your nose the wrong way, of smiling at a passing stranger on your way into town will have you running for the hills trying to evade the mob and their pitchforks – ok, not everywhere is a movie-style farming village, but you get the point.
Something like a hand gesture can have a very different meaning from place-to-place. Did you know that nodding your head at people in Greece, Turkey or Bulgaria actually means no?
Etiquette blunders are usually taken well, but it’s always better to not make those mistakes. We’ve come up with a few customs from around the world which should help to keep you out of trouble.
It’s not likely that when you’re touring around Indonesia or Thailand anybody (certainly not a local) will ask you for directions, but on the off-chance it does happen, don’t point with your forefinger. This is considered extremely rude, especially if you’re pointing towards a person. You’ll avoid making a bad impression if you point with your thumb.
If only eating a meal was simple. In many countries it will cause great offence to refuse food – in China you might be offered live baby mice! Probably a good time to claim vegetarianism if you don’t think you can stomach it.
Most countries where you will probably be expected to eat using chopsticks have rules for their use.
Never leave your chopsticks standing up in your bowl as this is representative of funerary rites, and neither should you drop or place them parallel across your bowl as this is bad luck. And if you’re taking food from a communal plate, or if you’re passing food you have to use the opposite ends of the chopsticks – not the ends that go in your mouth. You should also leave a small portion of food your plate to signify your satiation, otherwise your host will thing they haven’t provided you with enough food. If in doubt, just watch what everyone else is doing.
In India Hinduism is the predominant religion, it’s practiced by around 80% of the country’s population, and many of the customs are inspired by its doctrine. It has a hierarchal system for parts of the body – the head being the most superior, the feet being the lowest on the ladder. Feet are considered dirty so you should always remove your shoes before entering someone’s house; if you meet a respected community elder it is polite to bend over and touch their feet.
If you struggle with the old left/right problem labels on your hands will save you a lot of embarrassment and insult to your hosts when visiting Arab countries. It is customary to use the left hand for cleaning yourself (work it out!), and Indians never eat with their left hands. You should also remember will take offence if you give them money or gifts using the left hand.
It’s always good to hospitable to visitors, and it is taken very seriously in Arab and Muslim tradition. You will probably be treated like a king, and it’s a tradition within Islam that someone is allowed to stay in your home for three days before you can ask them why they are staying or when they plan on leaving. It is also a great honour to be invited to someone’s home and should never be turned down.
What rituals have you come across in your travels? Did you accidentally offend someone? Tell us about your social blunders in our comments section!