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Top 10 travel faux pas and how to avoid them

From pointing fingers to blowing your nose in public, language guru Benny Lewis lists the most common cultural mistakes travellers make. Take heed!

Dress Appropriately sign, Bangkok (Peter Moore)

Travelling has opened my world to so many interesting cultures. When you learn the local language and try to make friends outside of fellow travellers, you start to see just how much each member of the human race has in common.

Despite this, you can get into trouble for doing quite innocent things that are run-of-the-mill back home, but are major taboos or even illegal in other countries. 

Here are ten things to consider avoiding the next time you go abroad:

1. Pointing with your finger

Using your index finger to show where something (and especially someone) is, can be considered very rude in many cultures, and can even imply that you are picking a fight. Alternatives range from open palm gestures in countries like Japan, to pursing your lips in the direction you are referring to in places like the Philippines and Colombia.

2. Flushing toilet paper

Many toilets around the world can't handle toilet paper, and instead a bin beside the toilet is provided for you to discard your used paper. Flushing it is a force of habit for those of us used to it, but this could actually block the toilet or the sewage system.

3. Relying on standard prices

In countries like India or Thailand, many items and even accommodation are negotiable through haggling. A simple “How much does it actually cost?” question may frequently be met with a frustrating “How much do you want to pay?”. I've found that the best technique is to argue why the price should be reduced, instead of a more western approach of quoting bigger and smaller numbers alternatively and meeting in the middle.

4. Wearing your shoes indoors

Shoes in many countries, especially in Asian ones, are considered very dirty due to everything they are in contact with outside. In many places – homes, temples and some businesses – there is an area just before or after the entrance reserved for leaving your shoes. Sometimes there are replacement slippers, while other times it's OK to walk around in your socks. Don't forget this or you could be seen as unhygienic.

5. Dressing too casual or light

If you want to attract far too much attention, dress like you do back home! I found that when I dressed a little heavier (despite the hot weather) in Egypt, I could blend in better. Generally, sleeveless shirts and shorts should be avoided in many countries, as it's rare to show so much skin in more conservative places, regardless of how hot it is.

6. Not reading up on local laws and customs

Just a few minutes' research can prepare you for unwanted surprises. In Singapore, you can get a hefty fine for bringing chewing gum into the country; in Thailand you can be jailed for speaking ill of the king; and public kissing can get you 120 lashes in Saudi Arabia or jail time in Dubai. Any good travel guide of each local country will warn you about all of its most different laws.

7. Blowing your nose in public

In Taiwan and Japan, it's not uncommon to see many people wearing face masks and even hygienic gloves any time they are out of the house. As such, obvious nose blowing will have people recoiling. Even the idea of a handkerchief can be considered quite filthy. It's better to excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.

8. Leaving chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice

In many Asian countries, rice can be one of the major dishes and there is quite a lot of etiquette around how you use chopsticks when eating. They should never be left on opposite sides of the plate, crossed, used to pull your bowl closer or left upright. Leaving them upright in the rice represents a Japanese funeral rite.

9. Touching things with your left hand

In many countries, such as India, the left hand is reserved for 'bathroom necessities'. (Visitors to the country may want to bring their own toilet paper with them everywhere if they don't want to partake in this custom!) As such, people will be disgusted if they see you picking up food with your left hand, or offering them that hand to shake, regardless of how clean you may keep it.

10. Not speaking the local language

While English speakers would love to think that the entire world speaks English, this is generally only a stereotype propagated by the tourist industry. In fact, the vast majority of people you are likely to meet off the beaten track will have little or no English. Showing respect by learning the basics and even putting the effort in to be conversational, can be very well-received.

And best of all, a local friend can always make sure to point out if you are committing any cultural faux pas! You'll learn more about the local culture by spending time with its people.

Do you know of any other travel faux pas that Benny hasn't mentioned? Tell us about them in the comments below.

Fluent in 3 Months - Benny LewisTech-nomad Benny Lewis is the author of Fluent in 3 Months, £9.99, published by Collins on 11 March. You can order your copy now on Amazon.

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