Travel faux pas… around the world
Renowned around the world for being courteous and polite, Britain even has the Debrett’s Guide to British Etiquette and Modern Manners to follow. However, British intricacies fall by the wayside in foreign countries and cultures. Lucy Pierce has discovered some of the most common travel faux pas that the British often make abroad.
Each country has their quirks when it comes to dining: some universal, others more idiosyncratic. A common grievance for the French is when we eat bread as an appetizer – it is in fact for the starter, cheese or leftover sauce. A bête noire for French chefs is adding salt and pepper to your food before tasting it. Or worse, asking for a sauce to enhance the flavour. An innocent request for salt could also cause upset in Chile and Hispanic countries. When passing the salt, it should be placed on the table near to the person. Those that are superstitious believe that if the salt is passed from hand to hand, you will fall out with the other person.
Meal times in the UK tend to be a little blurred, and people are often seen consuming food and drink on public transport. This is not approved of on Japan’s trains. Generally, food and drink should not be consumed in public. Both the French and Italians also agree with this; food is to be enjoyed at a restaurant, not on-the-go.
For Argentinians, mate is as important to them as a cup of tea is for us. Mate is an addictive caffeinated tea, drunk by everyone. You should never turn down mate. When you’ve had enough, thank them by saying ‘gracias’, and hand it back. The same can be said for vodka in Russia; it’s rude to turn it down and it is always taken neat.
In Italy, you shouldn’t order a cappuccino after 10.30am, as milk is only consumed at breakfast. After this, an espresso without milk is had after the meal, or taken standing at the bar if you’re not dining. A glass of water is also served with your espresso; this is to cleanse your palate beforehand.
Ethiopia’s national drink is coffee, and a ritual that takes at least an hour. First, the sugar is placed in small cups, then the water and coffee mixture is added. Then, the aroma is inhaled before being sipped slowly. Coffee is served in three rounds, called awol, tona and baraka and believed to symbolize a spiritual transformation.
If you are fortunate to have a coffee with Bedouins in the Middle East, then you will learn how it is an important symbol of hospitality and trust. Sharing coffee shows mutual goodwill. Coffee is also served in small quantities; the first cup is for the soul, the second for the sword and the third because you are a guest. If you want a refill, you simply hand it to your host. When you’ve had enough, shake the cup by tilting the cup two or three times.
Should you finish your food?
Food is considered to be sacred in India. You should finish everything on your plate; this shows respect for the food that has been served. Dishes in southern India are sometimes served on a banana leaf; once you have finished, it is polite to fold your leaf over from the top. If you fold it from the bottom, it indicates you were not satisfied. In Japan, you should also finish your food, as it’s considered rude not to. One of the fundamental concepts, mottainai is a feeling of regret at wasting something. If you’re eating noodles, slurping is a sign of appreciation.
In China, leaving an empty plate signifies to the host that you’re still hungry. Consider leaving a little behind to let the host know you’ve had enough. Once finished, burping is considered to be a compliment. In the UK and Japan however, it would be considered extremely vulgar!
Trying to use your chopsticks like a knife and fork is considered a chopstick taboo, as is stabbing your food, placing your chopsticks over your bowl and waving them around or pointing with them. Rubbing your chopsticks together indicates that the chopsticks are cheap and is deeply offensive.
The worst faux pas of all is placing chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. This is a rite at Japanese funerals, when a bowl of rice with upright chopsticks is placed before the coffin. It is also said to bring bad luck. Passing food with chopsticks is another mistake that should be restricted to funerals, as the bone fragments are passed this way at funerals.
With most countries having different expectancies, tipping can be a minefield. Like many countries in Asia, China has a no-tipping culture for food. In the past, it was considered a bribe and was even banned. However, you should leave a tip for baggage handlers, tour guides and tour bus drivers.
In Japan, they believe good service should be a precedent. Restaurant and hotel staff are trained to politely refuse. You can tip at a special event; if you do, it should be placed in an envelope. While in South East Asia, rounding up the bill is appreciated. In countries across the Americas, Europe and other parts of Asia, tips in restaurants are usually included on the bill, and can vary between 5-20%. While in Australia, tips aren’t expected but are appreciated.
While we’re used to shaking hands to greet someone, don’t offer your left hand. In many countries around the world, the left hand is used for personal hygiene. In India and Nepal, you should put your palms together and say namaste. In Japan, bow – the lower you bow the more respectful you are. In many European countries, two or three kisses are common greetings. While in Argentina, they greet each other with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Italians are extremely emphatic and they have their own vocabulary through hand gestures. The most common is gathering your fingertips together on each hand and shaking your hands up and down, which signifies ‘ma che vuoi?’ This means ‘what do you mean?’ or ‘what do you want?’
Pointing is considered rude in many cultures; it can also imply you’re picking a fight. Raising your fist to a man in Brazil conveys that their wife is cheating on him. In Vietnam, crossing your fingers doesn’t signify wishing for good luck, but is essentially is giving someone the middle finger. A simple thumbs up in Greece, West Africa and the Middle East does not have the same meaning, it is considered rude. In Korea and Japan, having your hands in your pocket is a sign of arrogance, especially when talking to someone.
While it may be commonly known, you should cover your shoulders when visiting religious buildings. In Islamic countries, you must also wear modest, loose-fitted clothing with a headscarf. In Thailand and other Buddhist countries, the head is considered sacred. It is also extremely rude to touch people on the head.
Your feet, on the other hand, are the least sacred part of your body. You shouldn’t point at feet; they are considered unclean. Nor should you enter a religious building or someone’s home with shoes on, as they are considered dirty. In Asia – Japan and Thailand in particular – and the Middle East, exposing the soles of your feet is considered rude and disrespectful.
Cox & Kings arranges escorted group tours and tailor-made private travel across the world. To visit some of the countries described in this article, options include our Japan Cultural Treasures group tour, or Italy: The Culture & Cucina of Campania.