Certain gestures that seem innocent enough to us here in Australia, such as shaking hands and giving a toast, may cause a stir or even be offensive when you’re overseas. Here are 10 gestures you should avoid making while travelling.
1. Thumbs up
A thumbs up is a universal symbol for ‘ok’, right? Wrong. In Afghanistan, Iran and parts of Italy, the sign is considered obscene because it literally means ‘sit on this’. It’s basically the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger, so avoid using it in these countries.
2. Patting someone’s head
In most western societies, patting the head of another person is usually a sign of affection (albeit sometimes one of condescension). In Buddhist countries, the head is regarded as a sacred place, so touching it can be insulting, even for children.
3. Showing the sole of your shoe
When in Egypt, Singapore, Saudi Arabia or Thailand, it’s considered insulting to show the sole of your shoe by resting your foot on your knee.
4. Nodding and shaking your head
You might be used to nodding your head for ‘yes’ and shaking it for ‘no’. Don’t get caught out in Bulgaria, where the opposite of both is true.
5. Public affection
In the United Arab Emirates, it’s illegal to have sex outside of marriage. In places such as Dubai, you’d be advised to avoid public displays of affection, like kissing.
6. Misusing chopsticks
Being able to use chopsticks correctly is a sign of good manners and breeding in many Asian cultures. As a rule, the further up the stem you grip the chopsticks, the more sophisticated you are. Avoid crossing them over each other, using them to point or resting them on the opposite side of your plate.
7. Shaking hands
Try your best not to use your left hand to shake hands, eat or pass over an item when in a Muslim country, as this hand is generally reserved for maintaining bodily hygiene, and so is considered unclean.
Don’t wink at anyone in India – unless you’re sure you want it to be taken as a genuine sexual connotation.
9. Leaving on your shoes
In many countries in the East, removing your shoes and hat is customary before you enter a temple or someone’s home. In Japan, you will often be provided with a pair of slippers to wear between the front door and the living room. In some cases, you will remove these before stepping onto the tatami (red mat).
Toasting is often a light-hearted gesture for us, but in Russia and the former Soviet Union, it carries great importance, not as a ‘cheers’ but as a way to thank someone for a meal or drink. In Belgium, it’s customary to hold off on sipping your drink until your host offers a toast. And as alcohol is prohibited in Muslim countries, just forget about toasting altogether.