International Social Norms: How to Avoid Offending or Confusing People
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International Social Norms: How to Avoid Offending or Confusing People

In many cultures, it’s a given that nodding your head up and down means yes while shaking your head back and forth means no. But like so many other gestures, there are some places where this doesn’t apply.

In Bulgaria, the meanings are reversed, potentially causing confusion to visitors who end up thinking a yes is a no. In the Balkans some locals may throw their head upward and click their tongue to indicate no.

Overall, more than half of communication is nonverbal, and that’s generally helpful when you don’t speak the same language as the people you’re visiting. But there’s a lot that can go wrong when social norms are misunderstood and we send the wrong messages.

Here are just some of the ways that social norms may differ across cultures.

Using Hand Gestures

In the United States, you can point someone in the right direction, keep your fingers crossed, or give someone a thumbs up without worry. In other countries, all three of these could cause a stir.

Pointing is considered rude in many countries. It’s especially bad if you point at someone. Because of this concern, employees at Disney are trained to use two fingers rather than the index finger to guide guests through the parks.

Similarly a thumbs up is akin to giving the middle finger in countries ranging from Australia to parts of West Africa. And crossed fingers has a vulgar meaning in Vietnam.

There are other gestures that are also questionable. In Thailand, a three finger salute like the one used in The Hunger Games is actually illegal. It’s associated with the 2014 coup d’état.

Generally it may be better to avoid hand gestures like these when traveling if you don’t know the social norms.

Giving a Pat on the Head

You’ll need to resist the temptation to pat a child on the head or put your hand on someone’s shoulder in a number of countries. That’s a big no-no in nations such as Thailand and Nepal. The head is considered sacred in the Buddhist and Hindu religions and should not be touched by a stranger.

Generally it may be a good rule of thumb to let other people take the lead when it comes to contact. Social norms are more evident if someone holds out a hand for a handshake or comes forward with arms outstretched for a hug. That makes it easier to react appropriately if you’re uncertain about local etiquette.

Some cultures are more open to physical contact with outsiders than others. Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

Favoring your Left

There is some bad news for lefties who travel. The left hand is considered unclean in a number of nations, and so it’s frowned upon to use it for eating or handing someone money or other objects. This is particularly the case in some Muslim and Hindu communities.

In general it’s something to keep in mind in nations ranging from Ghana and Morocco to Nepal and Thailand. However, not all things favor the right in these nations. The British Empire spread one lefty idea  – the concept of driving on the left. So when you are walking, keep in mind drivers will be on the left in nations including Nepal, Thailand, and Australia.

Tracking Time

In nations like Costa Rica the pace of life is slower so punctuality is not king. In fact in Costa Rica it may be expected that you’ll arrive just a little late for a dinner engagement or social gathering. That’s good news for travelers who don’t want to be under any time pressures.

Rustic Pathways students with local children in Costa Rica

A relaxed pace is the norm in Costa Rica. Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

It may be a different story in nations like Switzerland and Japan where being on time is treasured. That is one reason why Switzerland is known for the Swiss watch.

Following Bathroom Rules

Plumbing is not robust in many communities, so there are towns where you need to put toilet paper in a trash can and avoid flushing. On the flip side, flushing is essential in places like Singapore, where you could be fined for not flushing.

Other bathroom variations range from squat toilets to stalls with hoses or pedal-activated sprayers that can be used to clean a toilet after use. There also are restrooms where you have to pay to pee or bring your own toilet paper. You can just roll with the punches when you have to go.

In addition, in Spanish speaking countries, keep in mind that a “c” on a faucet may stand for “caliente,” which is hot not cold. Anywhere you go while traveling, it’s also recommended to look before you leap. Among other things, being observant may help you notice a critter that decided to make itself at home in a toilet or bathroom.

Getting Too Close – or Not Close Enough

How far you stand or sit from someone during a conservation does vary per culture. This has changed a bit because of Covid but generally in nations like Peru locals may want to get close. South America is one continent where less personal space is the norm.

Farther distances are prized in parts of Asia and some nations in Europe, including Croatia.

Paying Attention to Your Shoes

Shoes are often dirty, so your mother’s advice will help you in Costa Rica where shoes should not be put on the furniture. Also, there are a host of countries and cultures where you remove your shoes when entering someone’s home, a school, and places of worship. Shoes should be removed before entering a Muslim mosque, Hindu temple and Sikh gurdwara or temple.

There are certain places where you should remove your shoes before entering. Copyright: © 2015 Rustic Pathways

Countries where it’s customary to remove shoes include Japan, South Korea, Germany and Finland. In Thailand, feet in general are considered dirty, so don’t sit with your feet propped up.

Respecting Elders

In many cultures, older people are revered and therefore being respectful towards them is quite important. This factor comes into play in many group situations. For example, elders should be greeted first and served first at meals. When in doubt, allow older people to take center stage whenever possible.

Rustic Pathways students with local Fijian villagers

Be greeted like family in Somosomo village. Copyright: © 2015 Rustic Pathways

These are just some examples of how etiquette may differ from one place to another. When in doubt, a friendly demeanor always helps. It goes a long way towards excusing any errors that may be made. After all, one thing that’s pretty much universal is a genuine smile.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Lead Editor

Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.