Perhaps we feel the greatest joy of traveling when we venture into the unknown. However, the unknown that causes so much excitement, can also simultaneously be a source of ignorance, shame, guilt and embarrassment. The easiest way to receive the dreaded golden sombrero, is unawareness of the difference in gestures (hand and otherwise) around the world. Whether you’re traveling by way of private jet charter or Budget car hire your classiness abroad, isn’t determined by your class at home.
Discovering cultural differences can be one of the most pleasing aspects of traveling abroad. However, when we unwittingly run afoul of social protocol, and become persona non grata, we suddenly don’t feel so welcome. Usually, this is a product of our lack of knowledge regarding cultural customs in foreign countries. So whatever you do, don’t immediately think that waving goodbye, using the “OK” sign or throwing up the “Hook ‘em Horns” hand gesture, will be innocent and non-offensive.
Thinking waving goodbye is harmless can get you in big trouble. Using an open hand, or outward open palm is seen as insulting and confrontational in some countries, namely Greece. During the Byzantine Empire, criminals were shamed by having a mixture of ashes and feces spread on their faces. This gesture has roots in this ancient practice. This also holds true in parts of Africa and in Pakistan. So if you waved goodbye to your hosts, and they seem strangely irritable the next time you meet, you know why. Whatever you do, don’t try and bridge the language gap by telling them things are fine, with the “OK” gesture.
In the Middle East, the “OK” sign is seen as threatening. In Germany and Turkey, the gesture means that you’re a jerk. In Brazil, the gesture is the equivalent of giving someone the finger. Making a circle with the thumb and index finger can mean something along the same lines, but worse, in various areas of the world. The gesture mimics the anus and means you are one. Never underestimate the power of bathroom etiquette.
When in the Middle East or India for example, don’t ever greet people, or eat with your left hand. The left hand has a bad history in most of the world, as the etymology is rooted in a Latin word that means “sinister.” Perhaps for this reason, Indian and Arabic cultures employ their left hand to wipe and clean after going to the bathroom. So if you use your left hand to eat, you won’t be flattering yourself. If you’re from Texas and a fan of the University of Texas Longhorns, don’t try and dig out of a hole abroad, by “hooking ‘em” either.
In Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Columbia, this gesture means you’re a cuckold, or that your wife is cheating on you. This will certainly make for an awkward dinner with your local hosts. Thankfully, you never have to face this fate, as a ton of resources are available to steer you away from making an international fool of yourself.
If you’re in a hurry, have a short attention span, and want a Cliff Notes version of what to beware of, check out these quick “not to” guides here and here. If you’re looking for something a bit more in depth and specific, have a look at this comprehensive guide to worldwide etiquette. By chance that’s these resources don’t provide enough for your travel sensibilities, buy the most authoritative and funniest book on the subject.
Going Dutch in Beijing will teach you dozens of very useful hand gestures not to use around the world. The author Mark McCrum has traveled the globe extensively, but doesn’t come across as pretentious or haughty at all. His light hearted tone makes for hilarious, light and breezy reading. The book makes for a fine read whether on the hammock in the backyard or on a train, plane or automobile abroad. Learn more about the book on McCrum’s website.
Categories: Travel Tips