December 20, 2011
The Turks were so patient for putting up with me this fall as I cycled around the western half of the country. I cringe now when I recall the many times, while in conversation with strangers, that I lifted my feet and showed them the mucky gobs of fig seeds mashed into the underside of my shoes, accumulated through day after day of standing under fig trees and foraging off the branches. And, when shop keepers asked if I would like anything else with my groceries before paying, I often shook my head and touched my middle finger to my thumb – that gesture which to many Westerners means, “Everything’s just fine.”
Turns out, showing a person the sole of your shoe and making the “it’s-all-good” sign (which was originally coined as sign language by SCUBA divers) are both grave insults in Turkey. It’s a miracle I wasn’t thrown to the bears. It was only weeks later that I learned what a klutz I’d been. I was gleaning a website on faux pas commonly made by travelers, and idle amusement quickly turned to mortification as I recognized descriptions of my own misdeeds. There is nothing to do now but laugh at how many blunders I’ve unknowingly committed through years of visiting strange lands. Anyway, as global travel increasingly links cultures around the world, people everywhere may be growing more accepting of know-nothing travelers like me—and perhaps today the idea of the clueless foreigner is more charmingly comic than it is gravely offensive.
Nonetheless, there are a few things best not to do when traveling—and this list is a start:
1) In Japan, accepting a business card from a Japanese person without using two hands or acting like you are sublimely honored. Because a Japanese person isn’t fooling when he or she hands you a business card. In addition to receiving it with two hands, one is supposed to bow deferentially. Forbes.com addressed precisely this matter, with no intention of parody, in a 2005 article on etiquette pointers for the traveling businessperson. It makes that scene from American Psycho seem not so ludicrous after all.
2) In Georgia, drinking at the table while another is making a toast. Toasts in this former Soviet nation come many times per meal and may last as long as five or 10 minutes. They are sometimes almost hilariously theatrical until one realizes that Georgians are totally serious when they raise their wine glasses and begin speaking. If a guest is present, especially, the melodrama gets thick as the speaker praises the two represented nations, the honor of playing host to a foreigner, the guest’s good fortune as he or she continues their journey, ancestors, God and so on and so forth—though not always in a single toast. I spent some time in Georgia in 2010. Even at such informal sites as the side of the road, men drinking wine sometimes called me over, filled me a glass and embarked on lengthy verbal voyages. It’s a wonder, looking back, that we ever managed to squeeze in a drink.
3) In most of the Middle and Far East, walking into a home with one’s shoes on. Been there, done that—and with gunky fig jam caked to the soles of my cycling shoes, to boot. Yes, I was a walking disaster in Turkey, day after day committing insults so dreadful it’s fortunate I didn’t make the old ladies faint—or the young men call for their weapons.
4) In the Hindu and Muslim world, greeting a person or eating with your left hand. I cannot begin to imagine how many times I have absentmindedly done this in Turkey. Locals, it turns out, traditionally wipe themselves with the left hand. A tad bit presumptuous, isn’t it, for them to assume that I do, too?
5) Also in the Muslim world, eating during daylight hours during the holy month of Ramadan. Being the old hand at social blunders that I am, I’ve committed this crime many times. I was in Turkey during Ramadan in August 2010, and when I caught myself and sheepishly apologized, the folks around me said I had done nothing wrong. I have never known if they were simply being polite. Because in Dubai, anyway, foreigners seen eating during the Ramadan fasting hours can face jail time.
6) In Hawaii, refusing a lei. Don’t feel like wearing a rosary of tropical blossoms round your neck? Tough luck. Put the lei over your head, offer a generous hug in return and consider yourself formally welcomed to the islands. If you really can’t stand the thing, Hawaiian culture considers it acceptable for one to re-gift the lei to one’s spouse—but not, heaven forbid, if she’s a pregnant woman! Tread carefully. Stay vigilant.
7) In Russia, refusing vodka when offered, and sipping it once your glass is filled. Instead, you must gregariously chug your shot glass of Eurasia’s favorite booze. What’s more, having three drinks is sometimes obligatory at an event for one to demonstrate a baseline level of friendliness and social prowess. Meanwhile, women in Russia might do wisely, as custom sometimes demands, to leave the vodka to the men and drink wine instead.
8) And this one may come as a surprise: In Germany, discussing sports. So I read in this Vagabondish post from Amy Baker, who says German people may think someone “uneducated” if he or she is heard discussing a sporting match.
9) In the United Kingdom, holding up your index and middle finger with the back of your hand facing outward. Britons: Please don’t laugh. Because in America, most people are unaware that this is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger—and please understand that it’s a mistake if someone makes this sign while ordering two beers across a noisy pub.
10) Finally, in the United States, relieving oneself in public. That’s right, all you gentlemen from France, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic: Turning your back on a person or a crowd and emptying your bladder may be business as usual where you come from, but in my culture, many people consider it dirty and disrespectful. Why, I have friends and relatives who would keel over dead if they saw such an act in public.
Me? I’ll forgive you.
Anyone want to offer travel faux pas number 11? Or do you have any embarrassing or comical miscommunications worth sharing? Tell us about them below.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.