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Cultural Misgivings – Rude Gestures

Whether your visiting your Aunt in Texas, or taking a trip to China, every place has their own unique ‘way’.

Here’s our list of some cultural misgivings to avoid, especially if you ever want to be welcomed back.

Hand Gestures

In the West a thumbs-up signifies a “Yes” or “Well Done”, however in Iran it’s very much considered an insult. It’s known as a ‘bilakh’, which roughly translates to “Up Yours”. In Brazil, the “OK” sign, where thumb and forefinger meet to create a circle, is an obscene gesture to make. You are comparing someone to a particular part of the body, to rude to mention for this Blog, but you get the picture. The humble “Come Here” hand gesture, where you motioning using your upward palm and waving your fingers back is actually a romantic solicitation in Latin America. Be careful.


Right or Left

In Muslim countries it’s important to know which hand to use when. The right hand is used for such things as eating and shaking hands. Whereas the left hand is used for cleaning yourself, especially after using the toilet. So if you shake with the wrong hand, the left one, it’s considered a terrible insult.




We’ve all seen it, Italians literally embracing one another on a regular basis, for this is the norm in Mediterranean countries. In East Asia it’s advised to keep a respectful distance. In Buddhist countries the head is considered sacred, and it touch it is considered a grave insult. Whereas in Qatar and Saudi, men and women are forbidden to publicly embrace one another, quite different from Western values and has landed travelers in to a lot of local trouble.


Table Manners

In Asia, when using chopsticks, there are certain rules that must be adhered to. Never use your chopsticks to poke or spear your food, and never use them to help pull your plate closer, all of which are considered very rude. But that’s not all. Never cross your chopsticks over your bowl which, in some areas, can indicate you’re done with your meal and never point to anything with them, especially people. The ‘big’ one to remember is, never stick them upright in your rice, or pass food directly from one set of chopsticks to another. Doesn’t sound so big does it? You couldn’t be more wrong. These actions mimic rituals during a Japanese funeral.


Who Nose

It’s good to show your host you really appreciate the food whilst dining, and this can be achieved through some hearty slurping noises. However, if you sneeze, at that same table, it can garner you with looks of disgust. This is true in countries like Venezuela and Ecuador, in-fact it’s considered quite vulgar. In Japan and China, you must blow your nose, don’t pull out a handkerchief, which is seen as a repulsive ‘noise waste’ receptacle.


Silence is Golden

There are some places where silence is the norm. For example, in Northern Europe a sauna is usually participated in silence, as is going to church. In East Asia temples are sacred and should be enjoyed in silence. Meal times to are best to be kept quiet. In China and Japan, as well as some African countries, mealtime is for eating and not chatting.


Going Local

We’ve all seen tourists being a bit to enthusiastic about the local way of life. Trying to adopt the local accent, donning native costumes are a big no-no. Worst of all, never tell tales or give examples of how things are ‘better’ back home. At a Ecuadorian highland market never turn up wearing a national costume, the locals will ‘know’ you just bought it!


In the Buff

If you’re going to do something properly, you may as well go the whole hog! In Northern Europe, the Middle East and Scandinavia it’s expected that you completely disrobe when enjoying a sauna. If you don’t, it will be you getting the perplexing looks. It’s very common for whole families to participate in such ‘exposed’ activities. Our advice would be to immerse yourself in the local customs.


Flower Power

We all know the power of the flower, it symbolises everything from love to grief depending on their variety, colour and number. This also depends on where you are in the world. If you’re in China, or Indonesia, avoid giving an odd number of stems, as this is regarded as unlucky. If you’re in France or Austria giving red roses signifies romance, while presenting yellow roses in Mexico or Chile is a commemoration of grief or separation. If you’re in Hawaii never refuse a lei, it’s a sign of great dishonour.


No Shoes

If you’re in the South Pacific or parts of East Asia, you’ll need to remember to remove your shoes before entering a house as a sign of respect (and cleanliness). Feet are considered taboo in most Muslim countries, and showing the soles of your feet or tapping someone else with your shoe can be quite offensive. And, of course, never throw your shoes, not even in the US. You can get in to a lot of trouble for that.


Wherever you go, immerse yourself in the culture and don’t forget to take your Mobal World Phone with you.

Author: Emma

Emma is a Online Marketing Specialist at Mobal. She is responsible for our outbound marketing efforts including planning and executing email campaigns, social media and blog posts. She also works with the Web Designers at Mobal to update the website and to help to create a better experience for the user.

2 thoughts on "Cultural Misgivings – Rude Gestures"

  • Gerald Cross says:

    Thanks! These tips are very useful and much appreciated, especially by those os who are still getting our feet wet when it comes to world travel.

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