Travellers share the ‘cultural offences’ they have accidentally committed while trying to be polite abroad – from treating friends to dinner in Austria to asking a pal if they’re free for coffee in Romania
- Here polite travellers explain how they have offended due to cultural differences
- Members of the Facebook group Girls LOVE Travel shared their experiences
- Traveller Sarah Ryan took to the group for advice following negative experience
It’s not always easy to learn local customs as a traveller and for some unlucky jet-setters, attempts at politeness can land them in hot water with the locals.
While it would be considered a lovely gesture to pay the bill for everyone in the UK or the US, it’s seen as the height of rudeness in Russia and Austria, which Australian traveller Sarah Ryan discovered.
After accidentally committing a ‘cultural no-no’ traveller she took to Facebook to consult the members of Girls LOVE Travel over the cultural differences they have encountered, and was met with over a thousand responses.
Read on to discover the etiquette mistakes you will want to avoid while abroad, including handing an object over with your left hand in Sub-Saharan Africa and not thanking people twice in Japan.
Travellers often face misunderstandings due to cultural differences surrounding money, dining and interactions with strangers (stock image)
1. Paying the bill
Croatia: People take it in turns to pay rather than splitting
Austria: Announce to the group if you’re paying for everyone
Russia: Men should pay for women
In many western countries the gesture of paying for the bill after a meal with friends or colleagues is considered a kind and considerate action.
However for Sarah Ryan, a travel enthusiast from Australia and writer of the Facebook post, her travels in Austria revealed that the country’s customs were quite the opposite.
She wrote: ‘I paid the bill for a group of friends in Austria. Where I’m from, that’s not something you announce, you just do it and don’t really say.
‘My Austrian boyfriend at the time was really upset with me, saying that I should have told them I was going to pay so they knew to thank me.
Sarah Ryan took to Facebook to consult the members of Girls LOVE Travel over what cultural differences they had encountered
‘But in Australia if you say you’re going to pay, they don’t let you. It really put him at odds with me for a while.’
Another commenter had a different perspective, Cvita Lucija Bučević from Croatia wrote: ‘It is unusual in my country that when people hang out everyone has to cover their exact amount of bill every time. That’s not how we do it.
‘It’s generally a normal thing that one person covers the bill one time and the next time someone else will do it.’
She added that when out with foreigners she had learnt to use bill splitting apps ‘so no one would hold grudges because of these differences’.
Mariya Varnakova wrote: ‘My Finnish colleague (a girl) once paid for the dinner with two Russian men colleagues in one small Russian city. They were really offended as in Russia men are paying for women especially if there are few men and only one woman. She actually had to apologize for that and promise to let them pay next time for her dinner.’
Thousands of commenters shared their embarrassing stories of how they accidentally offended locals while travelling, including smiling too much and shaking a man’s hand
2. Smoking near people
France: People won’t mind
Australia: You might be challenged
With many different global attitudes to smoking in public and around others this smoker said she encountered a difficult situation when out for a meal with friends.
Pauline Vergnet wrote: ‘Loads of French people smoke and people are so used to it that it’s not a problem (that said, I know that was a terrible habit, I’m not trying to defend that) and when I was in Melbourne [Australia] a couple of people put me back in my place because I was smoking while having a coffee.
‘It was allowed to do so but they really didn’t like it. To be fair, it served me well.’
3. Declining food or drink
Africa and Romania: Considered rude to say no
When travelling you may want to think twice before refusing the offer of food or drink in someone’s home. These travellers reveal why…
Dayna Jones wrote: ‘When I was in Africa I was offered tea and biscuits from a friend, who I actually know from the US, and I thought I politely declined.
‘I didn’t want to take anything because the house we were at was obviously extremely poor and I felt anything they had was better off being used for them than me.
‘I didn’t realize I was being incredibly rude until he told me. Fortunately they were all very patient with me and they explained that even though my intentions were kind, I was greatly insulting them by not accepting their hospitality.
Shelby Mays stated that she does not point with one finger as this is considered rude in parts of the globe
‘I was shocked and embarrassed, but now I know. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was make anyone feel bad and if I ever travel that area of the world again I will graciously accept anything that anyone gives me, knowing that hospitality comes from a true place of heart rather than excess or abundance.’
She adds: ‘We’re so used to the world revolving around us and thinking that we are right that we quickly jump to why the other culture is wrong or how they misunderstood us rather than just accepting that things are different in other places and we need to respect that. A little humility goes a long way.’
Lauren Atkinson Rosky from the U.S. wrote: I remember in Romania it was considered rude to turn down food or drink in someone’s home.
‘They served this alcoholic drink that was soooo strong and I had to fight every urge to gag because I am not a big drinker (even average American liquor makes me gag) but this stuff was like gasoline!
‘I also had to learn in Poland not to throw specific compliments around to easily because you could just say you like someones necklace and next thing you know they are taking it off to give it to you!’
4. Using your left hand when interacting with others
Avoid in India, Nepal, parts of the Middle East, Ghana and Nigeria
Aliyah Alli explains how she was met with anger after using her left hand to hand over her passport in Nigeria.
She wrote: ‘Handed my passport to a customs officer in Nigeria with my left hand and he got so angry at me, and he said “Never hand something to someone with your left hand.
‘In Nigeria it is seen as highly disrespectful because your left hand is for specific things.’
In some countries, including India, Nepal and parts of the Middle East, the left hand is seen as unclean as it is used for cleaning yourself after going to the bathroom.
In those cultures it is better to use the right hand to pay or interact with others.
Barbara Ewurama Fosua Amoako added: ‘If you go to Ghana, well probably most if not all of Sub-Saharan Africa, don’t use your left hand to touch anything or shake hands. That is a no no!’
5. Talking too much or not enough
Norway and France: People like personal space
Ireland and Australia: Seen as rude not to be talkative
With no guidebook explaining whether cultures are likely to want to speak to you or not it’s difficult to know when your words are welcome.
Trine Malene Friis wrote: ‘I’m Norwegian, my boyfriend is Irish. In Norway it’s polite to leave people alone, not talk to them, give them personal space.
‘In Ireland it’s sometimes seen as rude if you’re not talkative, even with strangers – people might say “she’s quite shy, that one”, but they tell their friends afterwards that they thought you were rude.’
Pauline Vergnet also found that her French attitude to strangers did not come across well in Australia.
She wrote: ‘At the beginning I would come across as a very cold person. Australians are amazingly friendly, generous and laid back. They really try to help. But when I first got there, I was used to France where strangers won’t really come up to you unless they want something.
‘I remember that guy who saw I was confused by which tram to take in Melbourne and offered to help. I was so convinced that he would want something in exchange that I basically told him to leave me in peace. I must have come across as the rudest person on earth that day! I realised afterwards that he was just genuinely trying to help.’
Emily Christine Ellis wrote that even making a toast in Belgium could lead to offence if you do not look others in the eye while doing so
6. Saying thank you
Japan: Make sure to do it twice
For most cultures saying thank you is accepted as polite, however to maintain etiquette in Japan you will have to remember to say thank you twice.
Oana Capota, from Romania, wrote: ‘In Japan, you should always thank people twice: when you first get a present, and then again the next time you see them.
‘It might be easy to remember the next day, but if you see them a year later, you might forget.’
7. Eating and drinking politely
Poland: Don’t burp at the table
Japan: Slurp your noodles!
Belgium: Look everyone in the eyes when you toast
Maggie Slomiak writes: ‘If you burp at a table in Poland, it’s sooo rude! It is the opposite in south east Asia tho!’
Oana Capota added: ‘Slurping noodles in Japan is actually polite. My boyfriend’s family had a soba restaurant and they thought I didn’t like their food because I was eating quietly.
‘I also remember hearing something that maybe the Chinese like to feed their guests a lot so they like to see plates with food people couldn’t stuff into themselves, as opposed to Japanese people who think it’s polite to the host to eat everything off your plate.’
Emily Christine Ellis from the U.S. wrote: ‘In Belgium when you are toasting/cheersing with drinks, you have to look every other person in the group in the eyes before you drink, or it is considered bad luck and very very rude.
‘I know this is true in France and some other places as well, but they seemed to make more of a show of it in Belgium, and I was glad someone told me because we don’t do that in the US.’
8. Scheduling time with friends
Romania: Don’t phone ahead, just turn up
Oana Capota, who grew up in an ‘Anglo-Saxon culture’ before returning to her native Romania wrote: ‘I am used to being more cautious with new friends, where you schedule activities with friends, don’t act overly eager, etc.
‘I once got to spend six months in Romania while my grandmother was dying. And I became friends with the chef at this restaurant I frequented. Every week, I would phone him to see about meeting up for a coffee when he wasn’t at work. After a few months, he got mad at me. “Why don’t you just show up instead of calling to schedule?” I told him that, since I had to find a ride into town, I didn’t want to just show up if I wasn’t meeting him.
‘He said, “Just show up. If I’m not home, knock on my neighbour’s door and ask them where I am. They’ll phone around and find me.” And what should I do while I’m waiting for them to find you? “Easy,” he said. “They’ll invite you for coffee and cake while you wait. You make a new friend.”‘
Mary Grace added: ‘My parents are Italian immigrants. My husband is 100 percent Canadian. He calls his parents two weeks in advance to make appointments. I just tell my parents “we’re coming over now are you home?” I don’t know if that’s his family but I find it very strange to have to schedule a visit with your family.’
Danya Jones encourages travellers to accept hospitality, which she said comes from the ‘heart’ rather than ‘excess or abundance’
9. Dinner plans with friends
Croatia: Don’t ask guests to contribute to the meal
Kenya: Person who extends the invitation pays
Cvita Lucija Bučevic from Croatia wrote: ‘In my country if you invite someone for a dinner at your house it would be considered super rude to ask your guests to give you money for ingredients.
‘Unless the person who is coming offered this and you agreed on this (or it’s a really big party). But I noticed some Germans and Scandinavians feel the opposite.
‘Also it felt a bit weird and cold that again some nations will ask people for their money back even if it is a small amount like 50 cents. For me that would be very embarrassing and rude to do.’
Sandra Ray, from Kenya, also expressed how inviting someone for a meal usually meant you would be expected to pay for it all.
She wrote: ‘In my country [Kenya], if I tell you “let’s go for lunch or dinner”, the person expects you to cater for bill because its said you invited someone who had no plans for eating or drinking at that moment. Until I met some Germans. If they say let’s go for dinner or drinks then you have to cater for your own bills.’
10. Smiling at strangers
Russia: Comes across as arrogant
You may think that cracking a smile is endearing in any international location however Tessa Heemskerk from Amsterdam revealed otherwise.
She wrote: ‘I’ve lived in Russia for a while. One thing I struggled with the most is not smiling to random people you make eye contact with on the street.
‘No one smiled to randoms because they think you are being fake as we all have problems in our lives we deal with.
‘Smiling is like saying your life is great, which is considered rude. Also while on the phone they don’t end the calls with saying goodbyes they just hang up. It’s time efficient for sure but this is considered rude in my country.
‘Lastly they appreciate it, when you pay cash, that you pay the exact amount. I’ve had numerous times clerks saying they don’t have change, when they obviously had.
She concluded: ‘I love Russian culture though, because once you get to become friends with them you have a friend for life.’
Jeanne Gallo explained how she believed her smiling attracted unwanted attention: ‘My first night in Paris, I was so excited to be there and unconsciously found myself smiling at strangers as I looked around and took in the sights of the city (I’m a happy, smiley American, by nature).
‘A man, not realizing I was just permanently smiling, interpreted my smile as flirtation and proceeded to tell me very aggressively how inappropriate I was to smile at him in front of his wife. After that, I worked to not make eye contact with people to avoid any further misunderstandings.’
11. Getting the server’s attention
Benin and Chad: Make a hissing sound
Natalie Engdah from Sweden shared the vast differences in approach culturally that can cause upset whilst attempting to get the attention of a waiter or waitress.
She wrote:’l I was at a bar/café with two friends from Africa (Benin and Chad) in the Hague in the Netherlands.
‘One of them hissed (tss-sound) to get the waitress’ attention, as is the norm in their countries. The waitress got so offended, I tried explaining there was no disrespect meant, but she wouldn’t have it.
I get that it’s offensive there (I’m from Sweden and it would be crazy offensive here too) but I also feel like she worked in service in the Hague – clearly a very international city with people from all over the world, and can’t apply her own cultural interpretations on her customers.
And I have myself wasted sooo much time trying to get a waiters attention in countries in Africa with a soft “excuse me”. Now i tss there too.’