We are all familiar with Donald Trump’s presidency, where he animatedly used the thumbs-up sign to indicate everything was cool and dandy-like, he laughed regularly with his mouth open, and often gesticulated with the thumb and index finger of his left hand joined to form a circle when on the podium. Presumably unknown to Mr President at the time, these otherwise harmless gestures are often deemed rude or even a highly offensive insult in some parts of the world.
There are many countries, most noticeably Greece, and those in Latin America, the Middle East and Western Africa, where the thumbs-up sign has very much the same meaning as holding up a middle finger does in the Western World. And should you travel to Japan, a wholehearted, open-mouthed belly-laugh is thought of as very impolite, and somewhat reminiscent of a chimpanzee-like reaction.
Right or left?
We may complain that some manufacturers are now dropping the use of the toilet roll cardboard insert, but there are some cultures that do not subscribe to the use of toilet paper at all, using the left hand and water instead. Therefore, accepting gifts, eating, or doing pretty much anything with your left hand in much of Africa, India, Sri Lanka and the Middle East is somewhat like a slap in the face.
Personally, if I have an appointment, I always show up early (although I may not necessarily ‘check in’ for the appointment immediately upon arrival). By being early, it always means you can then be on time, and it advantageously/patronisingly demonstrates to the person or people you are meeting that you value their time. However, throughout Latin America, and in particular Argentina, the expectation is that you arrive late, especially for a social event. And when you do arrive at your meeting, appointment or party in China, Korea, the Middle East (except Israel) or Thailand, no hugging or touching – even on the arm – unless it’s family and they take the lead.
Asking for condiment
Eating out where food is very much a fabric of society and where food preparation is seen as an art, it is very much an insult to ask for an extra condiment to alter the taste of an otherwise lovingly prepared meal. The sure sign that you don’t ask will be the omission of any condiments on the dinner table. And eating anywhere but insinde in Japan or Rwanda is considered bad taste. In Asia as a whole, you will be expected to wait until served, unlike arriving at a European function where we are often told to “help ourselves”. And don’t think you are helping ease the burden by refusing the sudden offer of food in most Arab countries – that is a direct insult to their hospitality. Remember also that while the Western World prefers clean plates from a meal, countries such as China, the Philippines, Russia and Thailand think that an empty plate means the meal wasn’t sufficient.
Regular cab users will be surprised to learn that it is expected for one of the passengers to sit in the front of a taxi in Australia or New Zealand, and in parts of Ireland, the Netherlands and Scotland. However, should you spy a coat, newspaper or sandwich on the front seat, hop in the back.
While it is to be expected in the rather formal society that is Japan, dressing in sports clothing otherwise worn inside a gym is unacceptably rude in many countries.
Should you be offered a gift in Japan or China, it is expected you refuse it first-time around (although in Norway, if you are offered a drink in someone’s house and you politely refuse, you won’t be offered a second time). Never keep one hand in your pocket in either Turkey or South Korea. And China, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey consider blowing your nose to be the height of ignorance.
Baseball hat and shirts?
The popular habit of wearing baseball hats backwards, or the rather base habit some British males have of going topless the moment the weather approaches 20C in the UK, is actually considered totally unacceptable in many parts of the world. In South Korea, men keep their shirts on even when on the beach and in very hot weather. However, the reverse is the norm in Turkey and Scandinavia, where you will be thought of as eccentric if you keep your clothes on in the jacuzzi, sauna or steam room.
And feet are a funny one: it is expected you remove your shoes when entering private homes in Asian and Caribbean countries, but when visiting most Arab, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim countries, because they are in contact with dirty ground when you walk, showing the bottom of your feet is considered extremely disrespectful.
Finally, while tipping in the USA is almost a religion, be aware that in Japan, Malaysia (perhaps not as much in major commercial centres) and South Korea, it is an enormous insult to do so, as workers consider they are professional at what they do, being paid sufficiently by the establishment to serve you.