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What not to do when visiting a country
March 15, 2015, 10:51 am

Local etiquette trips up even the savviest travelers – so here we weigh in with some of the worst mistakes not to make abroad.

The number trap

In some cultures, giving the wrong amount of an item can be worse than no present at all. Do not give an even number of flowers as a gift in Russia; they are for dead folks. A proper bouquet will have one, three, five or seven flowers. Odd numbers of flowers are given for happy occasions in Russia, while bouquets of two, four, six, 12 or 24 stems are often brought to funerals. In China, the word for ‘four’ sounds very similar to the word for ‘death’, so it is a good idea to avoid giving anything in fours.

Similarly, in Japan, the traditional wedding gift of cash should not be given in bills divisible by two: that signifies the marriage could end in divorce. A gift of 20,000 yen, for example, should be given with one 10,000 yen and two 5,000 yen notes – but not two bills of 10,000 yen.

Hands off

As tempting as rubbing children's hair might be for visitors from other cultures, in southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, never touch anyone’s head or pass anything from above the head, since it is considered to be the most sacred body part.

Keep to yourself

Across Western Europe, avoid striking up conversations with strangers, except about how bad something is or about the weather. In addition to the fact that business-oriented nature of some of bigger cities in Northern and Western Europe often emphasizes saving time – and avoiding unnecessary chatter, avoiding eye contact is the only way to preserve a Londoner's sense of personal space.

Just go with it

When it comes to humor, roll with the punches. Mexico is a place where visitors should feel accepted – not offended – if they are being insulted. Although, this kind of humor is fairly common across Latin American cultures, tread lightly when returning the jabs.

Keep it down

A loud tone of voice, particularly in a one-on-one conversation, can be tactless in many cultures; in France, it is truly gauche. French use different volumes for different situations. In a café, you cannot overhear a discussion at the nearest table, even if it is only two or three feet away. It is recommended to always mimic your conversation partner’s volume and adjusting upwards only when needed. Keeping your voice down is not just polite: it may even be safer.  

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