How You Are Offending The Locals When Traveling Abroad


You’ve poured over your guidebook and learned to say “please” and “thank you” in the local language, and the last thing you want to do when visiting another country is upset the locals. Unfortunately, it’s easier than you might expect to offend someone when traveling abroad. Something as innocent as a hand gesture that means nothing in the United States may be considered extremely rude or disrespectful abroad. If you’re lucky, your faux pas will just be quietly corrected, if not, it could lead to a confrontation or worse. Read on to find out how to avoid accidentally insulting someone on your travels.


Tipping is not practiced in many countries, especially those in Europe and Asia. In the States it’s expected and widely seen as rude not to tip, but not so in other places around the world. In some European countries, tipping is often taken as a sign that the business is not paying its employees enough. In Japan, it’s viewed as an insult, and will often be handed back to you. It can feel a bit awkward and you may even feel a bit guilty leaving a restaurant without putting a few coins on the table if that’s what you’re used to, but it’s not expected, so try to put those feelings aside and abide by the customs of their culture. Avoid the practice in Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and China.

Sitting in the Back of a Cab

In some countries where there isn’t a large class divide, it can be considered rude if you sit in the backseat of a cab or Uber if there’s room in the front. In Australia, a single passenger sitting in the back seat is viewed as “putting on airs.” However, never put cultural comfort over safety. If, for instance, you’re traveling alone and you feel unsafe sitting in the front seat, by all means, take the precaution of sitting in the back. Sit in the front seat in Australia, New Zealand, China, Ireland, Scotland, and the Middle East.

Wearing Your Shoes Indoors

In many Asian countries it’s considered rude to keep your shoes on in restaurants and hotels, and even some shops, but especially so in temples and in someone’s home. The Japanese consider it an honor to be invited into another person’s home; to bring in dirt is seen as disrespectful. Many places provide slippers for you to wear instead. Socks are also acceptable. If bathroom shoes or slippers are provided, do not wear these outside of the bathroom as it’s considered unclean. It is customary to place your shoes outside the door with the toes pointed toward the door. Take your shoes off in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Cambodia, and parts of Hawaii.

Using the “OK” Hand Gesture

In the United States and many parts of the world we interpret a circle made with the index finger and thumb to mean “OK,” but some countries see it differently. In Japan, the gesture stands for “money.” In France, it means that something or someone is worthless. In Venezuela and Turkey, the gesture is seen as an insult toward gay people. While in some places it’s merely confusing, in others it’s downright offensive, so best avoid the gesture altogether. Avoid it in France, Greece, Spain, Germany, Japan, Brazil, Venezuela, Turkey, and parts of the Middle East.

Eating with Your Left Hand

This one may be difficult for left-handers to get used to. In countries where communal dining is common, and eating off of a shared plate is standard, it’s common practice to eat with the right hand. You’ll want to try to avoid touching the plate at all with the left. In many African countries it’s simply considered rude, but in some places, it’s thought of downright unclean. In the Middle East, the left hand is reserved for more personal duties like those done in the bathroom. Use your right hand to eat in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Cultural differences are what make us unique, and the point of travel is to experience those differences. Taking just a bit of time before the trip to learn what might offend citizens of your host country will make that experience much more pleasant for everyone. Happy travels.