Ten Must-know Local Customs Before You Travel

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It’s easy to get the essentials down when traveling abroad, like making sure your passport is current and remembering to exchange some money into the local currency. Perhaps what’s harder to grasp are the local customs, which might be different from your own but matter a lot to the people in whose country you’ve just arrived. Although none of these will set off an international incident if you forget to follow them, you’ll do yourself a favor in making new friends if you try to remember these customs during your journey.

Japan: Take off your shoes when entering someone's home

Traditionally, the floors in Japanese homes were made of tamami, and many activities such as eating and sleeping were done on or close to this soft woven surface. Although homes in Japan might be more Western today, the tradition generally remains, and it’s a sign of respect to your hosts that you share their wishes to keep their home clean.

Ireland and United Kingdom: Remember your friends at the pub

When out with friends for drinks at the pub, you can expect that when it’s your turn to refill your glass, you’re also buying a round for everyone. It’s considered rude to buy a drink only for yourself, but there’s a silver lining: by extending your generosity to your pals, they will in turn take care of you when it’s their turn to pony up at the bar. (Plus, you can teach them what that American idiom “pony up” means.)

Denmark: Embrace hygge

You might need to spend a bit of time in Denmark to truly understand hygge, but once you do, you’ll find that it’s something you’ll want to take with you and practice long after your trip is over. The word translates loosely to “cozy,” but ask a few Danes and you’ll get a myriad of answers having to do with friends, family, warmth, and togetherness. This is a culture that has learned how to successfully combat the dark days of a long, cold winter with hot drinks, warm interiors, and good companionship.

Thailand: Don’t show someone the bottom of your foot

In Thai culture, the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body, and the person who sees the bottoms of yours could be offended. Be mindful of how you sit or stand so that you aren’t pointing the soles of your feet in someone’s direction. It may seem like a strange custom to remember, but it’s easy enough to follow. For instance, don’t tip one foot up while riding an escalator, or prop your feet up on your bags while waiting at the airport. And, if you’re sitting on the ground, keep your feet flat on the ground if you stretch your legs out in front of you.

India and parts of the Middle East and Africa: Avoid eating, gesturing with your left hand

In India, as in many Muslim countries, the left hand is traditionally considered unclean, so it’s considered rude to eat with it, give gifts, or signal a greeting. This might seem to be something that only lefties need to note, but as a general rule when traveling in these countries, everyone should remember that the left hand is for less...refined tasks like removing shoes, picking up trash, and using the toilet.

China and Japan: Be careful how you place your chopsticks

Although everyone has an opinion on the proper way to use chopsticks, one thing is for certain: when you put them down, you shouldn’t leave them sitting upright in your bowl. This is something reserved for honoring the dead in both China and Japan. When you need to put yours down (hopefully while enjoying a delicious meal), just remember to put them to the side of your bowl, or on a chopstick holder if you have one.

Europe: Think before you tip too much

Dining out might be something that people in every country enjoy, and you’d think the routine is universal: you order, you eat, you pay the bill and tip your server. Be sure you check your bill before you pay, particularly in Europe; gratuity may be included, and you aren’t expected to leave more than 5–10% for your server. In northern and Eastern Europe, the menu prices tend to include service fees, and remember that generally, European servers are better compensated compared to their American counterparts.

Bulgaria: Remember that head nods are reversed

When you aren’t familiar with the local language, it’s easy to fall back on what you assume to be universal gestures for “yes” and “no,” but in Bulgaria, these gestures are reversed: shaking your head means “yes” and nodding means “no.” It’s going to be a tough habit to break, especially because locals you encounter might try to accommodate the cultural difference if they notice you are a foreigner. Just remember da and nay for “yes” and “no,” and you’ll avoid confusion.

Brazil, England, Spain: Mind your hand gestures

Similar to head nods, hand gestures might seem to be a great fallback when you don’t speak the language, but keep in mind that certain gestures have a very different (and sometimes offensive) meaning in foreign countries. Avoid the “OK” sign in Brazil, and the two-fingered, reversed “peace” sign in England (both translate loosely to the middle finger in the United States). The seemingly innocuous devil horns that signifies “rock ‘n’ roll” is actually quite offensive in Spain, where they imply that someone’s spouse has been unfaithful, i.e. a castrated bull.

France: Be friendly

Speaking French to native speakers might be intimidating, but the niceties of basic greetings really do matter in France. Remember to say bonjour when you arrive in a shop or restaurant, merci when you want to thank someone, and au revoir when you leave. Not only are you showing basic manners, but you’re making an effort to speak the language, which a native in any country would respect.

Katie is FlipKey's content strategist and product marketing manager. She began her career in online journalism, and she has written for many outlets, ranging from the Boston Phoenix to the Fidelity Investments website. Katie loves a good road trip, particularly when there is local food to try upon arrival. She also enjoys photography, bike rides, and octopus videos.

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