Cultural faux pas and how to avoid them

Making a positive impression when you move to a new country is important. With so many varying customs, cultures and traditions how do you avoid getting it wrong and unintentionally causing offence? We cover some area below to get you started to help you settle in following your international move.

Body Language

  • In the Middle East, India, and Africa, the right hand is used for eating, touching and greeting. The left hand is considered unclean, so using your left hand in this manner in public should be avoided.
  • It is considered rude to cross your legs in several cultures. In South Africa and the Middle East, the act of crossed legs may reveal the sole of a foot, a sign of a disrespect. In Japan, avoid crossing your legs when in the presence of an elder or someone considered to be more respected than you.
  • Some gestures which may be considered normal in one country can be deemed offensive in another. For example, giving a thumbs up is seen as a sign of approval and satisfaction in the West, but may be frowned upon in some parts of the Middle East.
  • In most parts of the world, a handshake demonstrates negotiations are concluded, with everyone is parting on good terms. In the Middle East, a handshake can signify the proper negotiations are now beginning.
  • Saying “hi”, to someone you know in the street and continue walking whilst in Morocco may seem fair enough . However this is considered to be quite rude. When you encounter this situation you would be expected to talk about discuss children, health, family and mutual friends.
  • In many parts of Middle Eastern countries both genders are strictly forbidden from signs of public affection and/or physical contact.

Eating & Drinking

  • Eating and drinking in formal surroundings is a potential minefield, so it is important to familiarise yourself with local traditions. Guidelines differ enormously from place to place (and sometimes are a complete contrast). Here are a few examples
  • In many Asian cultures and also in Russia, talking during the meal is uncommon. Most conversation are reserved until the meal is over. Whilst eating, the focus should be on the food. However this is not the case in Japan, where colleagues will often be found discussing social issues over a meal after office hours.
  • The amount of food you eat can also be a sensitive issue in certain parts of the world. If you pick away at food in Italy, Greece or Russia, then you run the risk of upsetting your host because you did not eat enough.
  • Just because you have mastered using a pair of chopsticks, doesn’t mean you are necessarily in calm waters. In Asian countries never use them in a pointing gesture, and avoid leaving them upright in your bowl  – which has strong connotations to death. Don’t use them as drumsticks or to spear food. Chopsticks should always be placed side by side – do not cross them.
  • In the likely event you are offered vodka in Russia, it is meant as a sign of friendship and trust. Try to avoid refusing the offer. Also Russians consider it rude to sip vodka. Drink the vodka in one shot, (it is served neat and should be consumed so).
  • For Muslims and Jews, pork is forbidden. Hindus, regard eating beef unholy. Many Hindus are also vegetarian. Some Roman Catholics may choose to eat fish rather than meat on a Friday.
  • In Japan it’s generally acceptable to slurp your food. Some hosts may consider this to be a compliment. Whilst you may not want to join in, don’t be put off if someone at the next table is a noisy eater.
  • Discussing money matters at the dining table in France is considered uncouth. Also, when the bill arrives you should never offer to split it. It’s generally accepted that whoever initiated the meal picks up the tab. If you want to avoid paying, do not organise the event.
  • If you are sitting at a dining table in Portugal and notice your favourite sauce or condiment is missing it is probably best to simply go without. Requesting additional seasoning is likely to be interpreted by the host that the food does not taste good enough.
  • When drinking wine in France with a group of people you should never top up your own glass without first offering to refill the glasses of everyone else at the table.
  • In South Korea women should only pour or refill drinks on behalf of men, they should avoid doing the same for other women in the group.
  • When drinking with company in Japan, you should offer to fill the glass of the person near to you, but avoid filling your own. It is suggested that topping your own glass up can be construed to others that you are an alcoholic.
  • Throughout many parts of the world finishing all of your food is seen as a good thing; implying you enjoyed the food. In Asia leaving your plate completely clean implies your host did not provide enough food and you are still hungry – a grave insult. Try leaving a morsel of food on your plate. It probably goes without saying but never ever lick your plate!

Gestures and physical contact

  • Touching and personal contact is very personal and a cautious approach is advisable
  • In many cultures, pointing with a finger is considered impolite. It is advisable to avoid it entirely. If you must gesture toward something, use your entire hand.
  • In Thailand the head is believed to be sacred. You should avoid patting someone on the head, even a child, which for many people is counter-intuitive.
  • In parts of the Mediterranean, when meeting up with someone you are familiar with, a warm embrace or even a tender touch on the shoulder/arm is perfectly acceptable. You may be considered cold and aloof if you fail to make any physical contact with an acquaintance.
  • In South Korea most physical contact is considered to be inappropriate. This applies especially when you encounter older people and members of the opposite sex.
  • When introducing yourself in Fiji you may find the handshake to be quite intense. Following the initial familiar up and down motion, your hands may remain in contact for the duration of your conversation.
  • If you happen to be passing through Southeast Asia, avoid pointing your feet, particularly at other people. The feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Always remove shoes when entering a home or a place of worship.
  • Holding up your hand with your palm outwards, known as the “Moutza” in Greece is considered to be an offensive gesture. In fact, the only gesture considered ruder is a “double moutza” which as you probably have guessed involved extending both palms. Signal the number five by ensuring your palm is facing inward to you.

A note on eye contact

  • Once again, making eye contact can be dealt with differently depending on where you are in the world. In Western Europe and North America establishing eye contact with during conversation indicates trust, whereas failing to meet someone’s gaze can make you look untrustworthy or rude. In many Asian countries protracted eye contact is likely to make people feel uncomfortable.
  • Ironically, this situation is completely reversed when it comes to looking at people in general. In the Indian subcontinent and Asia people tend to stare, especially at foreigners in their country, this might be construed as rude in the West.

Clothing and Color

  • Some cultures pay particular attention to clothing. Dishevelled or even casual clothing is considered impolite. For example, it is important to dress well in Italy (avoid exposing the midriff) and conservative clothing throughout the Middle East is advisable especially in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
  • In most parts of Asia, Russia, and the South Pacific, it’s courteous to take of your footwear before entering a home. This is a sign of respect and signifies you have left the outside world where it belongs and also helps maintain hygiene.
  • Something as seemingly trivial as the colour of your clothing may also provoke emotions. You will make a positive impression by wearing red in China, which is regarded as lucky. The opposite can be said for wearing white, which is associated with death. In Malaysia yellow is reserved for royalty – so do not wear it.