Exploring new places and cultures is part of the thrill of travel, but it’s important to keep in mind that, just like when you’re a guest in someone else’s home, when you’re overseas, you’re a guest in someone else’s homeland. The same rules may not apply.
We’ve put together this handy guide to help you navigate foreign etiquette. If you can be sure to avoid these faux pas, then you’ll certainly be welcomed back.
1. India: Your right hand is the right hand
Sorry, lefties, but if you’re heading to India, you’ve got some preparing to do before you leave. In India, custom dictates that the left hand is used for cleaning your feet and other parts of your body typically covered with clothes. When it comes to eating, shaking hands, and all other social events, the right hand is, well, the right hand. Also bear in mind that the left hand is used for removing your shoes, which is a must when you enter someone’s home, a mosque or temple, and even some stores.
2. Greece: Beware the toilet paper trap in Greece
Arguably the biggest attractions in Greece are the Parthenon, the Coliseum, and all the other ancient architectural marvels. The ancient Greeks were as advance in their plumbing capabilities as they were with their building savvy, what with a Minoan king of Crete inventing the first flushable toilet about 2,800 years ago. But the technical know-how in that department has not kept pace. Toilets throughout the country today are equipped with pipes that are about two inches in diameter, about half that of pipes in the U.S. Toilet paper easily clogs them, so bins are supplied in every loo for paper waste.
3. Germany: Mind your hands
Germans may not be known for speaking with their hands the way Italians are, but you still have to mind them when you’re around others. Don’t talk to someone with your hands in your pocket. It’s considered quite rude. It’s also customary to keep your hands on the table when you’re eating. And Germans are big on shaking hands, too. Whenever you arrive to meet or depart from a group of people, shake hands with each and every individual or consider yourself and outcast.
4. France: Don’t split the bill
Here’s a term you should know before you head to Paris: La note separee (say-pa-RAY). That’s how to ask for separate checks when you’re dining out in the City of Lights. In France it’s considered vulgar to talk about money, so to get into a whole who-owes-what deliberation when you’re out with friends would be the ultimate indiscretion. Play it safe and ask for individual checks. If you’re out to ingratiate yourself to someone, just say “Ce soir, c’est moi qui vous invitons.” (Tonight, it’s on me.)
5. Japan: Keep it clean
Walk through any U.S. city and you’ll spot countless pedestrians hurrying down the street with a coffee cup in one hand and their phone in the other. That’s precisely what not to do in Japan. In Japan, cleanliness is truly next to godliness. Even the subway’s public bathrooms are as immaculate as a five-star hotel’s. Keeping cities spotless is instinctive to every citizen, which is why nobody drinks coffee, eats, or even smokes when they walk. It lowers the risk of making a mess – of your surroundings and yourself. And smokers, beware: lighting up in some public spaces is illegal, so make sure to check for signs first.
6. Chile: For best results, use a fork and knife
Got Chile on your bucket list? Here’s what you need to know before you get there: finger food does not exist here. Yes, of course restaurants serve appetizers and fries and such, but it’s considered extremely uncouth to touch your food. It’s said that Chileans get this from a strong cultural link with Europe, so pick up your knife and fork before digging into those fries.
And here’s a bonus tip: Mexico has the opposite etiquette. You’ll be deemed unworthy of your taco if you eat it with a knife and fork.
7. Thailand: Keep your hands to yourself
If you accidentally touch someone’s head in Thailand, be sure to apologize. According to Thai Buddhist spiritual beliefs, the head is considered a very sacred part of the body so making contact with someone’s head is disrespectful. Of course, this doesn’t count in privacy when you’re with a loved one, but it does hold for children, so be sure not to pinch the cheeks of any cute kids you encounter.