International Social Norms: 10 Essential Travel Etiquette Tips
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International Social Norms: 10 Essential Travel Etiquette Tips

Social norms are informal rules, language, customs and beliefs about acceptable and appropriate behavior. Depending on the country or culture, international social norms can widely vary.

While traveling abroad is fun and exciting, it is important to be respectful and follow the cultural norms, customs and rules of the country you are visiting.

Especially when you don’t speak the same language as the people you’re visiting, there’s a lot that can go wrong when cultural norms for locals in one country are considered rude in another.

Here are 10 travel etiquette tips to navigate social norms in a new destination.

International Social Norms & Travel Etiquette in Different Countries

  1. Nodding Yes or No
  2. Using Hand Gestures
  3. Giving a Pat on the Head
  4. Favoring Your Left
  5. Punctuality and Time Management
  6. Following Bathroom Rules
  7. Getting Too Close – or Not Close Enough
  8. Paying Attention to Shoes
  9. Respecting Elders
  10. Gift Giving

Travel Etiquette #1: Nodding Yes or No

In many cultures, a social norm like 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.

Travel Etiquette #2: 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 certain countries, ranging from Australia to parts of West Africa. Crossed fingers also 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, its better to avoid hand gestures like these on your next trip if you don’t know the social norms.

Travel Etiquette #3: 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 physical contact. Social norms are more evident if someone holds out a hand to shake hands or another person comes forward with arms outstretched for a hug. That makes it easier to react appropriately if you’re uncertain about local etiquette.

A group of locals and students are cheering together and holding hands while smiling, demonstrating an international social norm where close physical contact is desired.

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

Travel Etiquette #4: Favoring your Left

There is some bad news for lefties who travel abroad. The left hand is considered unclean in a number of nations, and so it’s not considered proper etiquette 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 and 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 side of the road in countries such as Nepal, Thailand, and Australia.

A group scooters and a few cars are waiting at a large intersection on a busy street in Bangkok, Thailand.

In cities like Bangkok Thailand that drive in the left lane, remember to look right first when crossing a street.

Travel Etiquette #5: Punctuality and Time Management

Different ways of understanding time can lead to misunderstandings between cultures — such as the ideal time when you are expected to arrive at a party or business event.

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 pressure while on vacation.

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. In the world of international business travel, punctuality can be essential to making a good impression.

Travel Etiquette #6: 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.

When traveling abroad, bathrooms can range from squat toilets to stalls with hoses or pedal-activated sprayers that can be used to clean the toilet seat 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.

Wherever you end up on your next trip, 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.

Gif shows a smart toilet seat automatically opening when approached in a hotel in Bali, Indonesia.

You might also be surprised by smart toilets that welcome you, like this one in a hotel in Bali, Indonesia.

Travel Etiquette #7: Getting Too Close – or Not Close Enough

How far you stand or sit from someone during a conversation does vary per culture. This has changed a bit because of COVID-19 but generally in nations like Peru, locals may want to get close. South America is one continent where less personal space is the norm when people talk to each other.

Farther distances and respecting other people’s personal space are prized in parts of Asia and some nations in Europe, including Croatia. When meeting someone for the first time, approaching some too closely may not be a good idea. Maintain a comfortable distance during interactions and wait until the other person approaches you.

Travel Etiquette #8: Paying Attention to Your Shoes

Shoes are often dirty, so a handy travel etiquette in Costa Rica is that 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 or business, a school, and places of worship. Shoes should be removed before entering a Muslim mosque, Hindu temple or Sikh gurdwara or temple.

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

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

Travel Etiquette #9: Respecting Elders

In many different cultures, older people are revered and therefore being respectful towards them is quite important and a sign of respect and good manners. 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

Travel Etiquette Tip #10: Gift Giving

Like many cultures, it is social etiquette to bring a little gift when visiting someone. Gift-giving is common in many parts of the world, such as South Africa, France, and Japan.

In countries such as South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, afternoon tea is commonly practiced so you may want to consider a gift that would go well with tea, like chocolate and sweets.

In France, a simple gift can be a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers.

A box filled with fruits covered in Styrofoam protective sleeves. Fruits include: dragon fruit, oranges, mangoes, and apples.

Boxes of expensive fruits are a common gift in South Korea when visiting the house of someone important to you.

However, in many East-Asian countries such as Japan and China, never give gift in sets of four. The number four sounds very similar to the Chinese character of “death” and gifts sets of four should always be avoided.

Whether it be knowing how to dress appropriately or greeting someone for the first time, do your research in advance on local social norms and etiquette guidelines.

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

Scott Ingram

Scott is the Director of Admissions at Rustic Pathways. He has spent the last 15 years in the student travel and experiential education world. Before helping families find the perfect Rustic Pathways program, he led gap year programs that took students around the world and spent three years teaching English in Japan.