Foreign Faux Pas >> August 2006

Cultural Nuances to Remember

A key component to a successful trip abroad is knowing the right information before arrival. Be a gracious guest in foreign countries around the world by avoiding the many unique faux pas within each culture.

Hand Gestures: OK is Not OK
For many Americans, hand symbols are second nature and are a great nonverbal form of communication. If only that could transfer into a culture where you don't always have a great command of the language.

Unfortunately, it rarely works that way. The American hand symbol for 'okay' means zero or worthless in France, and money in Japan. And in Brazil, Russia and Germany, it refers to a particular body part. It's just not okay.

In Greece, holding up five fingers to signify the number five or to tell someone to stop is considered an offensive gesture if the palm faces the listener. To gesture the number five, face your palm inward toward yourself, and to tell someone to stop, be sure to use closed fingers.

In the United Kingdom, signifying two of something should never be made with the back of the hand pointing toward the listener. Be sure to put the palm of the hand away from you when putting up your two fingers for the number two, the peace symbol or the "V for Victory" sign used during World War II.

Impress Your Hosts Abroad...
In Romania, be sure you have some time if you stop to pick up a Coke at a local sidewalk stand. Your purchase pays only for the soda itself and not for the bottle; you are expected to finish the drink there and return the bottle before walking away.

In Eastern European countries it is also impolite to eat fish with a knife; a very rustic or boorish practice. Instead, fish should be broken up with your fork.

In France, avoid saying Je suis plein after a meal to indicate that you are full, as this means you are pregnant. J’ai bien mangé (I have eaten well) will do nicely instead.

Don't forget to ask for your check at restaurants in Spain. It is considered rude for wait staff to bring your bill until it's requested, as they don't want to rush you. You could end up waiting for hours if you don't request the check from your server.

In China and many other Asian cultures, avoid planting your chopsticks in your rice. Two chopsticks stuck vertically in a rice bowl resembles incense sticks in a bowl of ashes, a custom to honor deaCoca Cola Bottlesd ancestors. It is considered an omen of death.

And in Thailand, the simple gesture of stepping over or standing on bills or coins is a sign of disrespect. Money is both a symbol of good fortune and prosperity, and also depicts the King. The King is also depicted on postage stamps, so licking the back of one is another easily avoidable faux pas.

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