Everyone’s been there: that awkward situation when you’re attempting to speak a foreign language in a foreign country. You try to say something innocent like, “Can you please pass the ketchup?” and inevitably end up referring to some indecent body part. More often than not, the person you’re speaking to will laugh it off, but it’s still important not to offend new acquaintances, especially when they’re in charge of making your food. You’re apt to get a few extra germs in your meal.
Sometimes though, it’s not just how you say something, but that you even bring it up at all. When in Europe, especially if you’re a pub-goer, stay away from any topic concerning sports teams. If you are, however, in the mood for a bar fight, bring up the topic of football (soccer) and defend a team from a country other than the one you’re currently in.
Often even more insulting and ultimately embarrassing, are gestures with alternative meanings. A general rule to follow is to keep your hands by your sides until you know for certain exactly what you’re communicating. Here are a few to remember not to do:
- In Iran, never give the thumbs up sign. A horribly insulting gesture that means something to the drum of “sit on this”.
- In Turkey and Brazil, the “OK” sign is not okay.
- In Thailand, no head patting should occur. The head is considered sacred.
- In Malaysia or the Philippines, pointing is a no go. Gesturing with pursed lips or a closed fist is okay.
Giving gifts seems like it would be a safe zone; everyone likes getting presents don’t they? Even gifts can sometimes become horrible faux pas unless the conscious gift-giver has done their homework. Local customs can render some gifts that would seem innocuous. In Arab countries, no alcohol should been given as a gift; Muslims generally do not drink, or if they do, not in public and in China, clocks are seen as unlucky.
The moral of the story is, do your research. The more prepared you are and the more you know about the culture, the easier it will be not to offend anybody. The less you offend people, the more likely people will be to offer hospitality, and the more fun you’ll have. If all else fails, keep your mouth shut, your hands by your sides, and hope someone decides to feed you.