10 Cultural Faux Pas to Avoid While Traveling

In Canada and several other countries, it is impolite to not remove your shoes at the door.
In Canada and several other countries, it is impolite to not remove your shoes at the door.

Part of traveling abroad is familiarizing yourself with unacceptable behavior that may be region-specific. Failing to do so can not only cause social embarrassment but could lead to being arrested or even deported in serious cases.

While globetrotting, it is particularly common to come across certain gestures and behaviors which mean different things in different countries. A thumbs up, for example, may be a harmless form of affirmation in some countries, but offensive in others. The following is a list of taboo types of behavior to avoid while touring different countries.

10. United Kingdom- backwards peace sign

While the two finger salute might be interpreted as a peace sign in most countries, the case is not so in the United Kingdom. When done with the palm of the hand facing inward, the sign becomes as insulting as using the middle finger is in the US. The gesture is commonly used to communicate contempt or defiance. It is best to avoid gesturing this to Brits.

9. Mexico - don't gift marigolds

When gift-giving in Mexico, be sure to avoid marigolds. The reason is that marigolds are prominently featured in the Dia de Los Muertos holiday celebrated on the first two days in November. It is believed that dead spirits are guided to their altars by the scent and color of marigolds. Thus, marigolds in the country are associated with death. It is rude and inappropriate to bring marigolds to the home of a host or to give them as a gift.

8. Thailand - insulting the King

In Thailand, defaming, threatening, or insulting the king or the royal family can come with harsh consequences. Lèse–majesté (wounded majesty) laws in the nation are some of the strictest in the world. The offender stands to be imprisoned for three to fifteen years for each count. Convictions under this law have increased since the 2014 military coup in the country. For example, in August 2015, a citizen named Pongsak Sriboonpeng was convicted by a military court for lèse–majesté after posting a series of pictures and messages on Facebook. He received 30 years, which is considered to be one of the harshest sentences given for lèse–majesté. Human rights groups have raised alarms over such convictions claiming they are used as weapons to stifle opposition groups. Since there is no legal definition for the actions deemed as royal defamation, it is best to avoid reference to the sovereign altogether.

7. Singapore - leave chewing gum at home

The ban on chewing gums was first imposed in 1992 by the then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong due to the damage it caused to public facilities and buildings. Although the ban has since been revised, importing chewing gum remains an offence. Only gum chewed for therapeutic benefit is allowed by law. Tourists and residents will not find gum for sale in shops. If found spitting gum along the street, an individual will face fines or even imprisonment. Residents often to go Malaysia to purchase the commodity. This ban and other environmental regulations have made Singapore one of the cleanest nations in the world.

6. Amsterdam - walking in the cycling lane

Cycling lanes are a common feature in Amsterdam and cycling has become the transport choice for most of the city’s inhabitants. The Amsterdam transportation infrastructure also includes sidewalks for pedestrians. Pedestrians using cycle lanes block the way for cyclists and can even cause collisions. It is advisable to stick to the clearly-marked pavements when walking and the cycling lanes when cycling.

5. Canada - take shoes off at the door

The cultural practice of taking off shoes at the door is an important etiquette in different countries. In Canada, keeping your shoes on in a host’s home is considered to be a major faux pas. During winter, most Canadian homes will place plastic boot trays at the door where visitors place their shoes. Most Canadians walk around the house barefoot or in socks, especially during the summer.

4. Iran - thumbs up

While giving a thumbs up in most countries is considered a positive gesture, the case is different in Iran and Afghanistan. The sign is referred to as the "bilakh", and it translates to "sit on this". The gesture is a serious insult and should be avoided in Iran and Afghanistan.

3. China - chopsticks upside down

The use of chopsticks is an important element of dining etiquette in China. Chopsticks take the place of knives and forks at Chinese tables, and the food is served in bite-sized pieces for easier holding. It is not advisable to leave chopsticks upright in a rice bowl as it is linked to death. The Chinese offer food to the dead with the chopsticks upright, meaning the practice is otherwise taboo. Holding chopsticks upright is also viewed as impolite to hosts.

2. Dubai - insulting Islam

The United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country and insulting Islam is considered a criminal offense whose consequences include deportation, prison sentence, and fines. Insulting Islam does not have to be verbal, as it can be through social media too. In 2015, an Indian expatriate was charged with the offence after posting remarks on Facebook. The man made "offensive" remarks about a video showcasing the violence in Iraq propagated by ISIS. In 2010, a British woman found herself on the wrong side of the law after she called a fellow employee a "Bin Laden supporter" on her social media page. She was subsequently fined. While traveling in Dubai, it is advisable to show respect to the country’s religion.

1. Sri Lanka - tattoos of Buddha

The religious and cultural lives of the majority of Sri Lanka’s population revolve around Buddhism. Buddhas are highly revered figures in the nation. There have been cases where foreigners have been barred from entering Sri Lanka or have been deported for sporting a Buddha tattoo. According to authorities, having a Buddha tattoo is a sign of disrespect and insensitivity to other people’s religion and culture. If you have a buddha tattoo and decide to venture into Sri Lanka, it's best to cover it up.


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