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The 10 Biggest Faux Pas From Around the World

Have you ever sat down to a business dinner in another country and realized you’ve made a terrible, unintended error? Or been warmly welcomed into a home overseas and managed to instantly offend your hosts?

International travel and business can be exciting and enriching — but if you don’t know a few basic rules beforehand, they can also be cringe-inducing (or even deal-breaking). This list of common faux pas can help you avoid embarrassment next time you leave the confines of home.

The country: Japan

The faux pas: Leaving your street shoes on when entering someone’s home or certain restaurants.

Why it’s a big deal: For centuries, Japanese people traditionally enjoyed their meals on tatami mats and slept on futons close to the floor. so it makes sense that they wouldn’t want dirt and contagion to be tracked in on shoes. Instead, many Japanese people wear house slippers at home.

The country: China

The faux pas: Misusing chopsticks — especially leaving them upright in a bowl of rice.

Why it’s a big deal: You wouldn’t play with your knife, stick a fork in the middle of food being passed around a table, or lick your utensils, would you? The same basic principles apply in China. Keep the chopsticks joined together at all times and rest them on the side of your plate when not in use (you might receive a small block specifically for this purpose). It’s OK to leave food on them, too. No cleaning at the table is necessary.

The country: India

The faux pas: Eating or giving gifts or temple offerings with your left hand.

Why it’s a big deal: In India, the right hand is used for clean functions such as serving and eating food. The left hand is meant for the less clean parts of life, such as going to the restroom or removing your shoes. And yes, this rule applies even if you’re naturally left-handed.

The region: The Middle East

The faux pas: Greeting elders or people of authority informally.

Why it’s a big deal: Respect is everything in countries such Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. Although the custom of greeting people by their full title and name has relaxed considerably in North America, it is very much a part of the culture in Arabic countries. Always refer to elders and people of authority, as well as people you are not close to, by using titles such as Professor, Doctor, or Mr./Mrs. Elders are particularly revered and treated formally.

The country: France

The faux pas: Eating before everyone at the table has been served.

Why it’s a big deal: France is a country that prides itself on tradition and formality. French dining can be a particularly fraught etiquette experience, but one rule must be followed above all: It’s considered very rude to eat before your dining companions have their food and drink. This is true in both informal and formal settings, in public and at home.

The country: Italy

The faux pas: Asking for salt and pepper before trying your food.

Why it’s a big deal: Asking for extras at the table — cheese, salt, or pepper — is severely frowned upon and considered an insult to the chef or the host who made your meal. If you absolutely must risk such a slight, ask for salt and pepper after tasting your food to at least demonstrate your confidence in the cook’s abilities.

The country: Spain

The faux pas: Eating before your host says “¡Buen provecho!” or “¡Que aproveche!”

Why it’s a big deal: These phrases are the signal to begin eating. You may hear them from a waiter or a host, but definitely wait to tuck into your meal until they have been spoken. Doing so shows respect for your host or the restaurant you’re patronizing. “¡Que aproveche!” is the colloquial term, so you might hear it more often.

The country: Brazil

The faux pas: Blowing your nose in public.

Why it’s a big deal: Sniffling, and especially nose blowing, is frowned upon in public places in Brazil. It’s considered a private matter that should be dealt with while alone or in a bathroom. If you must attend to a runny nose in public, dab quietly with a tissue.

The country: United States

The faux pas: Avoiding eye contact while speaking.

Why it’s a big deal: Americans are famously direct when communicating, and that extends to eye contact. Making continued eye contact while speaking is a sign of trustworthiness; to not do so would seem evasive or, worse, as if you’re lying.

The country: Russia

The faux pas: Shaking hands or greeting someone across a threshold.

Why it’s a big deal: In Russia, meeting halfway inside an entrance is prohibited by ancient superstition. It’s best to either wait until you’re fully inside the building or for your host to step outside.

What are some of the faux pas from your country or that you’ve encountered while traveling? I’d like to know more — please leave your comment below so we can all learn together.

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