June 11, 2024 | Eul Basa

American Customs That Are Offensive In Other Countries


Be respectful when abroad

Being mindful of cultural differences when traveling is important because some behaviors that are considered polite in the U.S. may be considered offensive elsewhere. It's crucial to understand varying norms when abroad to avoid misunderstandings and show respect for other cultures. 

Customs Cover

A-OK sign

In the US, the "OK" hand gesture is a commonly used communication too, that signifies approval. However, in Brazil, it is considered rude. Brazilians associate it with negativity, so travelers to Brazil are advised against using it while they are visiting the country.

ok hand signRhea Ball, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Asking personal questions

In the U.S., it may be inappropriate to ask someone personal questions, such as their age, salary, or marital status. In places like Japan, asking personal questions is not that big of a deal, especially when they are interacting with foreigners. Sometimes, the Japanese can be quite forward; but this is driven by curiosity rather than rudeness.

multiethnic cheerful colleaguesAlexander Suhorucov, Pexels

Blowing nose in public

Blowing your nose in public is acceptable in the U.S., but considered rude and unclean in Japan and China. People in those countries prefer to go to a private area like a bathroom stall to clear their nasal passages.

Blowing noseBrittany Colette, Unsplash

Casual outfits

In many urban areas in the Middle East, Western and local women are not mandated to cover up by law. However, many local women choose to wear abayas, hijabs, and veils. It is advised for Westerners to dress modestly out of respect for the local culture. Most Western women in the Middle East follow this advice closely. For example, some American females at dinners wear attire with high collars and neatly buttoned-up sleeves.

dinnerLee Myungseong, Unsplash

Chewing gum

In Singapore, it is illegal to chew gum in public. In fact, the import, sale, and distribution of gum is banned in the country because there was a time when vandals were using it to disrupt door sensors on MRT trains. Maintenance issues in public housing and buses were also caused by gum getting stuck.

Half a pack of chewing gum (Juicy Fruit), placed on a laptop computer  - 2006Alexander Staubo, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Direct eye contact

In general, individuals from Asian cultures tend to avert their eyes and look downwards during conversations as a sign of respect. This is because it can be considered aggressive or even rude to make direct eye contact when speaking to another person.

Asians talkingMikhail Nilov, Pexels

Discussing politics or religion

While discussing certain political or religious topics is commonplace in the U.S., in certain countries, particularly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, such is considered taboo and disrespectful. These societies prioritize peace and avoiding conflict in social interactions.

Colleagues speakingRDNE Stock project, Pexels

Eating on public transport

Eating while walking or on public transport is considered rude in various cultures. This tradition is common in countries like Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India. In these societies, meals are meant to be enjoyed in designated areas or at specific times.

public transportGuvluck, Pexels

Eating with hands

In America, using utensils is common, and eating with one's hands is generally seen as uncivilized. Sometimes, even dishes like pizza and sandwiches are eaten with cutlery. However, in certain regions of the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and South America, many people prefer to eat with clean hands.

man eating with his handsMichael Burrows, Pexels

Excessive smiling

In some cultures, smiling too much can give off an insincere vibe. For example, Russians reserve smiles for genuine happiness and familiar acquaintances. Smiling at strangers may be seen as insincere. In professional settings, Russians may appear more serious than Americans if they smile. 

woman smilingAndrea Piacquadio, Pexels

First name basis

In the U.S., using first names upon meeting someone is common and casual. However, in many European and Asian cultures, doing so without consent can be impolite. It is advised to use titles and last names unless told otherwise, as it is a show of respect in some Eastern countries.

Two Business men having conversationmarvent, Shutterstock

Handshaking

Greetings in the U.S. often involve a firm handshake to show confidence, but this can be seen as rude in some Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. Offering a gentle handshake or refraining from one altogether is the more favorable behavior as it can help avoid misunderstandings.

HandshakingRon Lach, Pexels

Hugging between acquaintances

In the U.S., hugging and touching are common greetings. In countries like Japan and China, it's the opposite—physical touch is rare and can make people uncomfortable. Personal space is highly valued in thsoe societies, so people tend to employ more reserved greetings like bows or nods.

huggingMiguel Bautista, Unsplash

Improper posture

Maintain proper sitting posture to show respect in different cultures as this is a way to convey respect. Avoid reclining, hunching, or crossing legs inappropriately. Do not rest arms on furniture and keep arms at your sides or on your lap instead.

Woman is seating in office meeting.Tima Miroshnichenko, Pexels

Interrupting mid-conversation

In some cultures, cutting someone off mid-sentence is just a normal part of conversational banter. The New York Times even coined this behavior "cooperative overlapping." In other cultures, however, interrupting someone while they are expressing a thought is seen as rude.

man and woman having a conversationJopwell, Pexels

Making small talk

Small talk is less common in some countries compared to the U.S. For example, In Finland, personal space and privacy are valued, making small talk seem intrusive. Similarly, in Germany, small talk is less common as most Germans value directness and efficiency when communicating with others.

Two women having a conversationTirachard Kumtanom, Pexels

Not removing shoes 

In Asian cultures, homes are sacred spaces where removing shoes before entering is a sign of respect for the host and the household. The act is rooted in their traditions and symbolizes leaving the chaos (and dirt) of the outside world behind.

removing shoesPNW Production, Pexels

Not using honorifics

In the U.S., first names are commonly used to greet others regardless of age or position. In Korea and Japan, appropriate honorifics are important for politeness. Using titles and respectful language shows respect for cultural ranking and avoids unintentional insults.

Two businessmen walking on a streetRedd F, Unsplash

Opening gifts too soon

In many Asian societies like Japan, China, and South Korea, it is customary to not open gifts in front of the giver, reflecting humility and courtesy. Opening immediately might make the giver uncomfortable if the reaction is not as expected. Recipients typically express gratitude and wait to unwrap the gift privately to genuinely appreciate it without feeling pressured.

Gift wrapped in blue paperSuzy Hazelwood, Pexels

Personal space

Americans typically stand 30 inches apart from each other during face-to-face conversations. In contrast, many foreigners come from places where people tend to stand together crowdedly. These differences in the concept of personal space are important for both Americans and foreigners to understand.

An elderly man and woman having conversation while looking at the folderRDNE Stock project, Pexels

Pointing an index finger

In many cultures including Western ones, pointing at others is considered impolite due to its association with blaming. It essentially subjects them to scrutiny without their consent. However, not all cultures adhere to this taboo—the Yucatec Mayas in southern Mexico, for example, do not find pointing impolite.

Portrait of joyful happy bearded man laughing loudly and pointing to cameraKhosro, Shutterstock

Pouring your own drinks

In Japan and Korea, pouring your drink is considered impolite. Instead, others at the table will pour for you as a gesture of care. This custom reflects the cultural value of reciprocity and admiration among friends.

1718356364146iStock

Public displays of affection

Public displays of affection are considered inappropriate in many Middle Eastern and Asian regions, where modesty and privacy are valued. Respecting and adhering to local customs is important in these societies.

a couple kissingThamyres Silva, Pexels

Varied punctuality

Punctuality is valued in the U.S. as a sign of respect—but in Argentina and Mexico, arriving exactly on time can be stressful and even impolite. Social gatherings often start later than scheduled.

Man in suit running lateChristopher Luther, Unsplash

Refusing food and drink

In some places, refusing food or drink from a different culture is like rejecting the culture and people. If you are travelling to a different country and come across locals who offer you food, try to make an effort to taste that food when possible.

Sharing Food on a family dinnerfauxels, Pexels

Showing the soles of feet

In Arab, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist nations, showing the soles of your feet is disrespectful because they are considered the lowest, dirtiest part of the body. Men, in particular, should be cautious crossing their legs to avoid this action.

Muslim weddingKamile ÖZDEMİR, Pexels

Talking loudly

In the US, public speaking is often loud and commonplace; whereas in countries like Japan and Switzerland, it is seen as rude. Residents of those countries value peace and privacy, which means they generally expect people to speak quietly when in public.

Woman talking through megaphoneKarolina Kaboompics, Pexels

Talking with hands on hips

In Mexico, communicating with your hands on your hips is seen as hostile behavior. Such a posture indicates that you are being confrontational toward the person you are talking to.

woman with hands on hipsRada Aslanova, Pexels

Thumbs up

Thumbs-up universally symbolizes agreement, except in some West African and Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In those countries, a thumbs up could signify an act of defiance or disrespect, akin to the middle finger in the U.S.

A Happy Woman making Thumbs UpRDNE Stock project, Pexels

Tipping

Tipping is not expected in Japan and South Korea. At restaurants and bars, the workers simply strive to provide excellent service without any additional compensation. In many cases, it is considered impolite to insist on tipping. Showing gratitude by thanking your servers is the standard (and all that is necessary from customers).

1718356407621Flickr

Using left hand

Using the right hand for general activities like eating and socializing is common and accepted in many cultures due to cultural beliefs and hygiene considerations. In Islam and other regions, the left hand is seen as impure and is used primarily for personal hygiene after using the bathroom.

Left human handSebastiaan Stam, Pexels

Waving someone over

In some cultures, waving or calling someone over may be seen as impolite or confrontational. In certain Asian and Middle Eastern societies, it is more respectful to use a slight nod or small hand gesture.

Man wearing red polo shirt is waving on white background.luis_molinero , Freepik

Yawning without covering mouth

In Japan and some cultures, covering your mouth when yawning is considered polite and respectful. Along the same vein, covering your mouth while laughing is also considered a respectful practice as it aligns with the Japanese preference for quiet spaces.

Man yawningcottonbro studio, Pexels


READ MORE

Zita Facts

Tragic Facts About Zita Of Bourbon-Parma, The Refugee Empress

If you assume the Hapsburg monarchs led charmed lives, you haven't heard the tragic tale of Zita of Bourbon-Parma, the Refugee Empress.
January 3, 2024 Brendan Da Costa

Fearsome Facts About King Yeongjo, Father Of The Mad Prince

Yeongjo ruled prosperously for half a century—but his reputation was tarnished by the shadow of his son's brutal execution.
March 12, 2024 Rachel Seigel

The Yanomami Tribe

Explore the world of the Yanomami people, indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest. Discover their unique way of life, from traditional homes and egalitarian society to the challenges they face from illegal mining and logging. Learn about their culture, history, and the importance of preserving their isolated community in this in-depth article.
November 9, 2023 Allison Robertson

The Yali People of Indonesia

Discover the Yali people who live in the remote mountains of Papua, Indonesia. As one of the few tribes of today who continue their traditional lifestyle, the Yali people have a long list of fascinating cultural practices. From intriguing cultural attire to shocking warrior rituals, find out which traditions they continue today, and which they've retired.
June 28, 2024 Allison Robertson

The Yagua Tribe

Discover the Yagua people, an indigenous tribe living in the dense Amazon Rainforest of Peru. From grass skirts and spears to body painting and intriguing marriage rituals, find out why they're known as the most characteristic tribe in the Amazon.
May 16, 2024 Allison Robertson
China Internal

Xiong'an, China: The City of the Future

Discover Xiong'an, China: The City of the Future. From robots and sensors to a points-based population management system, find out what makes this up-and-coming smart city appealing to Chinese citizens, and what other countries may think about it.
February 12, 2024 Miles Brucker