Etiquette around the world

We’ve all heard that in some parts of the world the left hand has only one function. But what about the lesser known world customs? How does a traveler avoid the cultural faux pas? Last year, Rolf wrote about common faux pas among travelers, suggesting ways to keep from being perceived as an “Ugly American”. But how does a traveler know exactly what offends who and where? Kwintessential and eDiplomat are two websites that can help the well-meaning traveler learn what to do (and not do) when traveling in specific countries.

Say that you have been invited to a dinner party that begins at 7:00 p.m.. What time are you really expected to arrive? This depends a lot on what part of the world you are in. In Turkey, guests are expected to arrive exactly on time for a dinner party. However, in Argentina, arriving on time is impolite; guests are expected to arrive 30-60 minutes late. When throwing a party in Brazil, expect guests to arrive late, but never suggest an “end time” for the party. Also, suggesting that guests bring any food or drink to Brazilian parties is very impolite. But polite guests in South Africa call the hostess before the party, asking what to bring. Confused yet?

Other common dilemmas for the traveler include:

  • Meal time is ripe with opportunities to offend. In Switzerland, diners are expected to use eating utensils at all times, including when eating fruit. However, in Morocco good manners have diners scooping food with a piece of bread (held in the right hand) or the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.
  • Body language also varies vastly between countries. In many Asian nations, touching the head of another person is a very rude act, not the playful hair tousling it may be to Americans.
  • Posture is very important in Indonesia. Crossing the legs is considered rude, especially placing an ankle over a knee. Proper posture has a person sitting up very straight with both feet flat on the floor.
  • In many parts of the Americas, travelers from the United States have to be careful not to refer to themselves as “Americans” since those in South America are also “American”. Instead, the U.S. passport bearer should refer to themselves as a United States citizen or a North American.
  • If giving flowers in Azerbaijan, it is important to know that one must give an odd number, as even numbers are reserved for funerals.

These websites can offer a good starting point for travelers to learn local customs in order to avoid leaving a trail of unintentionally offended people in their wake.

Posted by | Comments (10)  | July 26, 2007
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

10 Responses to “Etiquette around the world”

  1. Eva Says:

    As a lefty I always worry about that one… I don’t really know what to do about it though since my right hand verges on useless for anything requiring fine motor control.

    It’s nice that these sites exist but there are so many of these customs, we’re all bound to miss a few. I think the most important thing is to remember, when we’re at home, that tourists have different habits and don’t mean to offend… and then hope that we get the same understanding in return when we travel.

  2. Brandon Watts Says:

    This just goes to show that a lot of research goes into traveling the “right” way.

    Brandon Watts
    Criteo Evangelist

  3. Colin McAuliffe Says:

    Another good one to note,

    the OK sign in the US means A**hole in Brazil.

    Also, in Thailand, it is rude to put your fork in your mouth, the fork is only used for loading up the spoon with food.

  4. kevincure Says:

    I’m unconvinced that one shouldn’t say American when in Latin America. In Spanish, there’s a good word for “United States-ian”, but it doesn’t exist in standard English. Further, I’ve never understood why the “don’t say American!” crowd is so upset about the use of “American” but doesn’t see the same problem with “United States citizen.” Estados Unidos de Mexico, anyone? Estados Unidos de Colombia?

  5. NIcho Says:


    It’s relatively easy to understand, and although you’re right about Estados-Unidos de Mexico (not Mejico, you Spaniards), or Colombia.

    Mexico, and Colombia isn’t the name of the whole continent,

    I tend to say gringo, but I know some people won’t like that.

  6. BlueDog Says:

    Very interesting facts in your article. I’ve been to six countries outside the U.S., where I grew up. The “ugly American” term typically originates from the behavior of U.S. military personnel–who tend to be from less cultured regions of America–er, the U.S. When meeting locals abroad, U.S. citizens often spend much time in an apologetic mode–explaining that the U.S. president, uhhh, and the U.S. government does not always represent the will or values of everyday citizens–all of the time. A short time after Busb Jr. got “elected,” while I was abroad, a Canadian asked me what I thought about George W. Bush. I told him straight up, “He’s an a$$hole.” Also, I’m fairly open-minded about local customs, except for the fashionably-late syndrome. In some countries, the “local” times are actually an hour later than sated times. That’s simply unacceptable. The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world, in part due to the nuances of social Darwinism. 9:00 is 9:00 is 9:00.

  7. BlueDog Says:

    I almost forgot. About South Americans being offended that U.S. citizens refer to themselves as American…”America” refers to someone who never even traveled to the region, so doesn’t that nullfiy the whole thing? Just some food for thought.

  8. Shanel Says:


    This is a great post. When I was in East Africa a few months ago, I struggled because I am left handed.

    If I had known prior to going what a big deal the distinction between left and right hand tasks were, I would have practiced.

    After a few months, I kind of got used to doing things with my right hand, but there were times when not being able to use my left hand to eat made me want to break down in tears.

    In addition, when people noticed that I was left handed, it instantly became village news!!!
    I was considered some sort of Anomaly.


  9. Eric Lorentzen Says:

    I am so upset. My Book of Etiquette says while in the U.S. it is acceptable to use one’s fork left-handed, tines down without setting the knife down!

  10. Eric Lorentzen Says:

    or is it “without setting down the knife”? I think so.