Behaviours, gestures and customs can differ drastically from country to country. Brush up on our travel etiquette before setting off on your gap year!
It’s surprising how such a small thing can be mean so many different things. In the UK, ‘thumbs up’ may be a positive sign, but in Sardinia and Greece it means ‘screw you’. In some Middle Eastern countries, it translates as a foul insult, literally ‘up yours’, if you get what we mean…
In Indonesia on the other hand, the thumb is often used for pointing—using fingers is often considered to be rude.
Contrary to the UK, Bulgarians, and Iranians shake their heads for ‘yes’ and nod for ‘no’. In Greece, Lebanon and Turkey, a slight downward nod of the head means ‘yes’ whereas tilting it up means ‘no’. In India, a head waggle can mean a range of things, such as ‘I am considering what you said’.
Putting your feet up
It is best not to point the soles of your feet in anyone’s direction in Muslim countries, and in Thailand, pointing your feet towards a Buddha is a sign of disrespect. On a similar note, avoid stepping over anybody’s legs whilst in Nepal.
Similarly confusing is the good old ‘a-okay’ gesture, where your thumb connects with your index finger to form an ‘O’ shape. In parts of Australia this simply means ‘okay’, but in Brazil and Germany it is used as an insult. In Japan the same motion represents coins, in Russia it means zero, and in France it is an expression of worthlessness.
In the UK, we tend to value our privacy and personal space. In contrast, other cultures are much less inhibited. In the Mediterranean, Latin America and some parts of the Middle East, people will be much more liable to stand closer and make more expressive physical contact.
Turning up a few minutes late for social arrangements is usually considered okay in the UK, but we aren’t as laid back as Argentina, where arriving anywhere between one and three hours late is fine. Bad time keeping is less tolerated in Germany.
Hand in hand
Men holding hands or walking arm in arm in Muslim countries, India and Africa is perfectly acceptable as a friendly gesture, whereas in Europe it suggests a more intimate relationship.
Lefty or righty
In India and parts of Africa, the left hand is considered to be unclean, so stick to eating, greeting people and gesturing with your right hand if possible to avoid bad travel etiquette.
In India, only boys under 11 or 12 years old wear shorts, so sometimes the locals will find it hilarious to see older men in shorts.