What should I absolutely not do when visiting your country?

Local etiquette trips up even the savviest travellers – so Quora respondents weighed in with some of the worst mistakes to make abroad.

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.”

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.

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.

Hands off
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.

“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.”

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.

Just go with it
When it comes to humour, people in some countries warned visitors to roll with the punches. Yucatan resident Alejandro Suarez said Mexico is a place where visitors should feel accepted – not offended – if they are being insulted. “We'll mock, ridicule, insult, pick on and put down just for the fun of it, on a regular basis!” Suarez said. “The best and most warm family dinners are the ones where everyone is laughing their heads off at making fun of someone at the table.”

This kind of humour is fairly common across Latin American cultures, Morrison said. Still, she warned visitors to tread lightly when returning the jabs. “Jokes just do not translate well,” she said. “It’s best to avoid them.” One man she interviewed for her books bombed a business meeting when he told a joke in an elevator in Germany. Instead of coming across as funny, he came across as not being serious in a formal situation.  

Keep it down
Morrison said she was surprised that Quora users didn’t advise against speaking in elevated tones. “A loud tone of voice, particularly in a one-on-one conversation, can be tactless in many cultures,” she said. “In France, it’s truly gauche.” 

She mentioned that the French use different volumes for different situations. “In a café, you cannot overhear a discussion at the nearest table, even if it is only two or three feet away,” she said. She recommended always mimicking your conversation partner’s volume and adjusting upwards only when needed.

Keeping your voice down isn’t just polite: it may even be safer. According to Morrison, in the 1990s, hidden microphones were discovered in Air France’s first class cabin. Though it was never determined whether the recordings were for espionage or another purpose, the incident was a reminder that, in today’s highly-monitored world, anyone could be listening at any time. “Conversations were, and may be [still], monitored by more than your travelling companions on flights, in hotels and in offices around the world,” said Morrison. A little discretion and self-awareness goes a long way when it comes to safety and privacy on the road.