Because of the sheer size and diversity of the United States, there are plenty of places for American travelers to visit inside their own country. But when they whip out that passport and head abroad, they might find themselves in some awkward situations. Some habits considered a no-brainer in the States are actually seen as very rude abroad.
1. Calling The USA ‘America’
The word “America” is a source of great pride for those from the Americans, so much so that they’ll say it far more often than the more specific moniker, the “United States.” It just has such a poetic ring to it, and it evokes very strong emotions. The problem is, with no offense to Americans, there are many other countries that see it differently — for an important reason.
American travelers may find that referring to themselves as being from ‘America’ can be more than a bit controversial. The reason has nothing to do with criticisms of the United States itself, but rather that people from Guatemala all the way to Chile are Americans too! They’re Central Americans or South Americans, and by saying they’re from ‘America’, they see Americans as implying there can only be one.
2. Opening A Present Immediately
Imagine the following scenario. You’re at your birthday party, and friends have brought you presents, each one carefully wrapped in lovingly-selected paper and topped off with a pretty ribbon. What is your first instinct going to be? If you’re American, or from a variety of Western cultures, obviously you’re going to tear it open.
But hold your horses. American travelers who receive gifts in countries like China and India will have to resist the temptation to open that gift immediately. Opening a present in front of the person who gave it to you is a big no-no in those cultures. In fact, there are many places where it’s even considered rude to not refuse the gift several times before accepting it.
3. Volume Control
Ask any foreigner what’s the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Americans. You might be a little distraught by their answers, because instead of saying “innovative,” “strong,” or “friendly,” they’re far more likely to say “loud!” You can’t get much more of a reality check than that.
Foreigners tend to be amazed by how loud Americans can get even during everyday conversations, and can in fact often identify them immediately without even hearing their accent. It’s just one of those things Americans do that they seem to be blissfully unaware of. A little volume control, friends!
4. Sitting In The Back Of A Cab
Imagine the following scenario: you’re an American traveling abroad. You hail a taxi, and climb in. What part of the car do you enter? Chances are, you go in back. And depending on where you are, this is one of the things Americans do that is quite insulting.
Sure, you might convince yourself that it’s weird to sit next to someone you don’t know when there are so many available seats. But that’s precisely the problem. In Australia, New Zealand, and even in parts of Ireland, Scotland, or the Netherlands, by sitting in back, you’re seen as assuming you’re higher class than the driver.
5. Finishing Your Meal
From an American perspective, how could finishing the meal you’ve been presented with possibly be rude in any way? In their mind, it shows that you enjoyed the food so much that you ate and lapped up every last crumb, and that makes sense. But in some places, American travelers ought to leave just a bit on their plate.
In East Asia, Southeast Asia, and to an extent Russia and India, eating everything on your plate does not symbolize satisfaction, but the opposite. It tells your host that you are, in fact, still hungry after what they gave you, and need more — you’re basically saying they have not fed you properly!
For American travelers or frankly any person on a trip abroad, it’s best to learn what the local tipping culture is before arriving. For a majority of countries, tipping is an accepted and even demanded practice, and the only thing that varies is what percent to tip. However, in some places, tipping someone is like a slap in the face.
In Australia and Italy, it’s not necessary, but it probably won’t insult the server — in most cases. However, in South Korea and Japan, where people are paid standard wage and take pride in not living off of tips, getting a tip means you are taking pity on them, and they very much don’t appreciate that.
7. Hand In Your Pocket
Sometimes people walking around in public who don’t know where to put their hands, or feel their fingers getting frosty, are prone to put them in their pockets. For Americans, that generally doesn’t arouse any suspicions. But American travelers in South Korea ought to know that this simple gesture gets read quite differently there.
Even billionaire Bill Gates found this out the hard way: when meeting the former president of South Korea, he was photographed shaking her hand while leaving his other hand in his pocket. In the South Korean press, this was read as extremely disrespectful. Monty Python member Sir Michael Palin was bold enough to visit isolated North Korea, and was asked to shoot a scene over again because he had his hands in his pockets!
8. Workout Clothes In Public
Americans, admit it: whether it’s taking the kids to school, making a quick run to the supermarket, or making a deposit at the bank, you’ve gone out of the house in what could be broadly described as work-out clothes. This means sweatpants and tights, perhaps a baseball cap, too — and other countries have taken notice in all the wrong ways.
Although Americans are not necessarily the only culture where this kind of look is considered acceptable in a public space, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world takes kindly to this kind of get-up. In fact, there’s more than a few places where this would be considered tacky and in bad taste. Step up that wardrobe!
9. Flag Defensiveness
Flags on cars, flags on shops, flags on front porches, flags on T-shirts — when you’re traveling around the United States, it’s pretty impossible to forget what country you’re in. Americans are endlessly proud of their flag, starting from when they learn to salute it every morning as schoolchildren. For the uninitiated, it can be a bit overwhelming.
If Americans go abroad, they may be baffled to discover that other nationalities and cultures just don’t have the same attachment to their flags as Americans do. In many other societies, being proud of your cultural identity doesn’t revolve around your national symbols.
10. Baring Your Sole
Now, it’s not like Americans make a point of going around town all the time just showing the bottoms of their feet to whoever. That being said, if you’re abroad and decide to take your shoes off while you’re on the beach or in a park in the grass, you may inadvertently cause some serious offense.
The bottom of the foot in many world cultures is considered the dirtiest part of the body, and considering the sort of things we trek through on a daily basis, there may yet be some logic to that. So if you’re in the Middle East, or in a society influenced by Buddhist or Hindu traditions, just make sure you’re not pointing your piggies at anybody.
11. Eating In Public
Before you get on public transit wherever you may be visiting, it’s best to check whether or not you’re allowed to snack in the ears of your fellow passengers. But when it comes to eating outdoors in general, American travelers may be surprised to learn that not every place finds that habit acceptable.
In Japan and Rwanda and a handful of other countries, it’s bad form to walk down the street munching on something. Those cultures designate a space for each activity, and it’s thought that you ought to be eating the food at the restaurant where you bought it. Strolling along while scarfing something down is thought to be rude and sloppy.
12. Public Drinking
From Europe to Japan, drinking alcohol on the streets is not viewed as lewd, outlandish behavior. In fact, it’s an integral part of social culture. In so many other countries, you don’t have to think twice when walking down the street with a cold one. Not so, Americans. The US just hasn’t caught on to the wonderful joy that is the traditional German beer garden.
Whether from a bottle, a thermos, a flask or a cup, drinking in public is an absolute no-go in most parts of the States. As such, American travelers in cultures where this is accepted need to understand how not to overdo it, despite the excitement of their newfound freedom.
13. Shoes In The House
When Americans arrive home, what is the first thing they usually do? Perhaps a trip to the fridge, or sitting down on the couch to decompress. But they’re committing a heinous crime. Americans don’t take their shoes off upon entering their homes, and the rest of the world is shook.
Wearing shoes around the house is all kinds of gross. Think of all the yucky things you’re plodding through on an everyday basis, and then tracking on into your home on your sneakers. It’s one of those things Americans just don’t seem to have a problem with. Depending on the country, American travelers ought to be keenly aware of this before entering someone’s home, or even a place of worship.
14. Bad Geography Skills
From the Hawaiian rainforests to the Alaskan tundra, and from the Arizona desert to the rocky coast of Maine, the United States of America covers an incredibly vast amount of territory. With so many climes and so many travel possibilities, not to mention people, this has led Americans to think just a bit inwards.
Foreign countries are just so far away to travel to, and airfare costs a pretty penny. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for not knowing there’s a big wide world out there! American travelers are likely to find themselves being scoffed at if they are meeting people abroad and don’t know at least some rudimentary facts about their new friend’s country.
15. Using Your Left Hand
The world has been designed with right-handed people in mind, so left-handed Americans have had to learn to adapt as they grew up. But one thing was always certain: even if they were at a disadvantage, these lefties were never told there was anything wrong with that pesky left hand. Not so across a variety of cultures in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
Most likely to encounter this problem are American travelers in India. They quickly learn that the left hand is considered dirty for…reasons. So be forewarned: that means no touching someone with it, no eating with it, no passing an object with it, no paying with it. Even pointing with your left hand can be seen as an insult!
16. Thumbs Up
Surely nothing could be wrong with giving the occasional thumbs up to a friend of yours, even if you’re not doing it sarcastically. But beware: what is for Americans the most basic gesture of approval has wildly different meanings in other countries.
While in many cultures giving someone a thumbs up shows you agree with them, that everything is alright, or a job well done, American travelers in parts of the Middle East, West Africa, Greece, or Australia might find themselves in a rather sticky situation if they do this to someone. In those places, it is basically equivalent to saying to someone, “Up yours!”
17. Asking For Condiments
“Could we get some ketchup at our table please?” This seems like a completely inoffensive request. All you’re saying is you would like some added flavor to go with your food. In the United States, this request would not receive anything more than “Sure” in response from the server. But American travelers in places like Japan, Italy, France, and Spain, be careful.
They take great pride in their cooking, and they are likely to believe the dish they are presenting you is flawless. To ask for some mayonnaise, chili, mustard, or other condiments with it would be sending them the message that they screwed up!
18. “Help Yourself”
Even if many Americans don’t speak Spanish, they still usually know the basic phrase, “Mi casa es tu casa,” my house is your house. That means that when a guest comes over, they may be told to feel right at home and help themselves to whatever they like from the pantry. For an American audience, this practice seems welcoming. That’s not the case outside of the United States.
This approach to hosting is considered way too hands-off in a variety of world cultures, and can actually be perceived as lazy. Across the continents with the possible exception of Australia, it is believed that a host needs to constantly present food to their guest, and clear up after them.
19. Being On Time
You’re an American traveler, and you decide that even if back home you wouldn’t arrive at the time the invitation says, because you’re abroad, perhaps they do things differently. So you arrive to the gala on the dot, and run into an incredibly awkward situation.
This is precisely what will happen to you if you come on time to any event in Latin America, Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, many countries across Africa, and even the Philippines. Imagine coming to a birthday party an hour early while the patrons are still setting up, and having to sit awkwardly with the parents during that time, where they don’t know what to do with you.
20. Blowing Your Nose In Public
Objecting to this habit, no matter how much Americans will fess up to doing it themselves, may be the stand that makes just a bit of sense. Some people are more freaked out than others when they hear that loud honking of nostril and tissue on the subway or a bus, but they don’t give it too much thought.
But don’t try explaining your actions to people in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan, France, and China, just to name a few. In these countries, no matter how you may feel, loudly blowing your nose in public is considered absolutely foul. You may wipe it with a tissue, but that awful noise truly makes them leap out of their skins.
21. Needing Personal Space
Could you breathe a little more in that direction? Even in the most crowded New York subway car, Americans have a very different approach to personal space than many other cultures across the globe. They value it deeply, and any intrusion in their personal bubble or aura is bound to be met with a lot of resistance.
American travelers going to societies in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia need to be prepared to push their way through crowds and not take it personally if somebody touches them. If a foreigner snaps at a local for brushing against them or getting too close, chances are, that local won’t know what they did wrong.
22. Eating Quickly
For a culture that so loves different varieties of food from various cultures, Americans still can’t find the time to sit down, take a load off, and properly enjoy it. Everyone’s always rushing, and it makes no sense whatsoever. Let your bodies digest properly!
Whether it’s hurriedly eating a sandwich on the subway or snarfing a salad feverishly over your work laptop, foreigners think Americans see eating as a chore rather than an enjoyable social experience. Hopefully American travelers can take a cue from their surroundings and eat at a leisurely pace. And while we’re on the subject: sit down and savor your coffee rather than those takeaway cups.
23. Patting On The Head
Okay, so Americans don’t necessarily have a tendency to go strolling on down the street patting strangers’ children on the head. However, if you’re meeting someone’s family and seeing their little kids for the first time, chances are, you might reach out and tousle their hair. If you’re in a country with a Buddhist-influenced culture, stop that hand before it reaches out.
According to Buddhist tradition, the head is considered the body’s most sacred part, as it is the most elevated. So if you are in a place like China, Thailand, Cambodia, or Sri Lanka, to touch someone’s head uninvited is considered very poor form.
24. Bull Horn Fingers
This habit isn’t only reserved for heavy metal fans. We all know somebody who likes to flash the bull horn fingers and say “Rock on!” when they’re feeling particularly enthusiastic about something. In the US, it’s considered second nature, especially because many sports fans use the hand sign to support their team.
The problem is, there are more than a few places around the planet where that hand sign means something completely different. Across Mediterranean cultures and in certain parts of Latin America, pointing your bull horn fingers at somebody means their partner is cheating on them and they are being cuckolded!
25. Being Fashionably Late
Yes, time is an invention, but the way different people across the globe relate to it and how it ought to be used can differ wildly. So when you receive an invitation to a dinner party, or make a doctor’s appointment or a work meeting outside of the United States, how do you know when to arrive?
American travelers in these kind of situations need to check what is the norm in the country they are visiting. Whereas Californians, for example, have no problems sauntering a few minutes late into an event and treating it like it’s no big deal, this will get some big frowns in Japan, South Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. In those countries, punctuality is essential.
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