What should I absolutely not do when visiting your country?
Common sense goes a long way when it comes to learning a country’s proper etiquette. But even the savviest, most observant travellers can make the occasional cultural stumble if they are not careful.
Sam Bruce, a co-founder of the travel site Much Better Adventures, grew up in Hong Kong – yet did not realise until he was much older that in Hong Kong, people should always hand over business cards with two hands. “I had a rather awkward moment where I casually slid my name card face-down across the table to someone at the end of a meeting, when at the very same moment they delivered theirs, bowing, with both hands,” he explained. “What I had done was a big no-no and highly disrespectful.”
- Don't get stuck making an etiquette snafu. (Image Source/Getty)
To discover more of these unexpected missteps, we sought out the advice of users on question and answer site Quora, asking “What should I absolutely not do when visiting your country?” Here are the etiquette rules that surprised us the most.
The number trap
In some cultures, giving the wrong amount of an item can be worse than no present at all. “Do not give an even numbers of flowers as a gift. That’s for dead folks,” said Muscovite Katherine Makhalova. “A proper bouquet will have one, three, five or seven flowers.” Odd numbers of flowers are given for happy occasions in Russia, while bouquets of two, four, six, 12 or 24 stems are often brought to funerals.
- Giving flowers as a gift? Make sure to count them up first. (Rob Stothard/Getty)
Even outside of Russia, knowing which digits are lucky – or unlucky – may be important. “Numbers matter more than you might think,” explained Terri Morrison, speaker and author of the Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands series of etiquette books. “In China, the word for ‘four’ sounds very similar to the word for ‘death’, so it is a good idea to avoid giving anything in fours.”
Similarly, in Japan, the traditional wedding gift of cash should not be given in bills divisible by two: that signifies the marriage could end in divorce. A gift of 20,000 yen, for example, should be given with one 10,000 yen and two 5,000 yen notes – but not two bills of 10,000 yen.
Many Quora respondents from southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, reminded readers to be careful where they touch another person. “Never touch anyone’s head or pass anything from above the head,” said Neha Kariyaniya, a resident of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “It is considered to be the most sacred body part.” Such touch is inappropriate even in informal situations – and also applies to small children, as tempting as rubbing their hair might be for visitors from other cultures.
- As tempting as it is, try not to tousle that hair. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty)
“This is also very true in Thailand where the head is considered the seat of the soul,” said Morrison. The belief stems primarily from Buddhism, the religion that informs the everyday life of many Thai.
Keep to yourself
Quora users from across Western Europe pleaded for visitors to avoid striking up conversations with strangers. “Don’t talk to a stranger, except about how bad something is or about the weather,” said Londoner Thomas Goodwin. “Someone made eye contact with me on the Underground once,” joked fellow Londoner Paul Johnson. “Now they don’t have eyes.”
- The London Tube is for commuting, not conversing with strangers. (Dan Kitwood/Getty)
Other British users also commented on this one, saying that while talking to strangers is not always a negative, it should absolutely be avoided when using the Underground, London’s metro. “Avoiding eye contact is the only way to preserve your sense of personal space,” said Londoner Shefaly Yogendra.
In addition, the business-oriented nature of some of bigger cities in Northern and Western Europe often emphasises saving time – and avoiding unnecessary chatter. “Business means business in these countries, and any other topic of conversation is a distraction,” said Morrison.