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Most common cultural faux pas and how to avoid them

Most common cultural faux pas and how to avoid them

As children we learned to say please, thank you and to keep our elbows off the table. Now that we’re all grown up it’s easy to assume that we have a handle on all those social rules that keep the world running on a civilized note.

But if you’ve ever found yourself in a foreign county, you probably noticed that customs don’t always translate. As a new comer in Switzerland, I committed many a social crime. I vacuumed on Sundays (not allowed!), ate without wishing my fellow diners a good meal (rude!), and addressed my elderly neighbors by their first names (it’s always Herr or Frau!).  While none of these infringements landed me in serious trouble, I certainly wasn’t earning any gold stars for excellent expat behavior.

In case you are planning a trip abroad, here’s a quick list of the most common cultural faux pas and a few tips on how to avoid committing them.

Removing shoes

In many parts of the world, including Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Japan, Korea and Turkey, removing your shoes before you enter a home not only shows your host respect, it also keeps the floors clean. So if you’ve been invited to a private abode, be prepared to leave those cute booties at the door. Luckily, many hosts provide their guests with slippers because no one wants a pair of cold tootsies.


While we often think of a thumbs-up as representing approval – or these days a Facebook like – not everybody in the world shares this interpretation. Flash a thumbs-up in parts of West Africa, Russia, Iran, Greece or Sardinia, and you won’t be telling your friends that it’s all good in the neighborhood. Instead, your well-meaning gesture will be interpreted as derogatory, much like the middle finger in many Western countries.


When raising your glass in Germany or Switzerland, it’s customary to toast everyone at the table. As you clink, be sure to make eye contact. If you don’t, you’re in for trouble – seven years of bad luck to be exact!  And, just to add to the pressure, remember to avoid crossing arms as you toast around the table.

Eating with your hands

If you’re travelling to parts of Asia, Africa or the Middle East, you can leave your fork at home. It’s not only acceptable to eat with your hands, it can be insulting if you don’t. Just remember to dig in with your right hand. The left is reserved for everything that, well, happens in the bathroom. Sorry lefties, but when it comes to chowing down the right hand reigns supreme!


In much of Europe, it’s polite to greet acquaintances with kisses on the cheek (the number depends on where you are!). Try this in parts of Asia or the Middle East, however, and you risk committing a major faux-pas. In Thailand, the head is sacred and should never be touched – so don’t even think about patting all those cute little kids on their cute little noggins.

Drinking coffee

If you are in Italy or Spain and need an afternoon pick-me-up, it’s best to opt for an espresso. In the lands of café culture, cappuccinos are practically banned after 11. The locals will tell you that milk is best with breakfast and drinking dairy after lunch or dinner might mess with your digestion (don’t be surprised if someone lets you know!)

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