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February 2020

International Travel Faux Pas to Avoid

Don’t make these mistakes when you travel abroad

Our world is getting smaller. Travelling to faraway countries seems so much easier and more affordable these days than in times past. And while all of us around the world share many of the same interests in movies and shows, while we exchange culture with one another at the speed of the Internet, we’re still all very different and unique people.

Because of this, something that may seem innocuous in your country may actually be offensive in another, and vice versa. It’s important to keep these differences in mind while you travel, or you’ll run the risk of offending the people you hope to befriend. Today we’ll look at some of the travel faux pas (embarrassing actions) to avoid while you venture abroad, as well as some famous people who have committed them.

Victory sign facing the wrong way in British-influenced countries

Winston Churchill famously made popular the “V for victory” sign during World War II. It’s now a symbol that’s widely used even in East Asia, where “V for victory” can be easily found in Japanese anime.

That’s all fine and well until you hold the sign up in the wrong direction, in which case it means “up your bum.” This holds true in the United Kingdom, as well as in many British Commonwealth nations like Australia and South Africa. Churchill was known for doing so in many a photograph, a gesture further immortalized in the award-winning biopic The Darkest Hour.

Of course, it’s perfectly okay in California, where it’s the symbol for peace and love.

Eating pizza with a knife and fork in New York

While eating pizza with a knife and fork is perfectly normal in the culinary gem’s native country of Italy, New Yorkers take a more handsy approach to pizza consumption. Eating a big slice of New York-style pizza calls for leaving the utensils behind. You take the slice, folding it down the middle before putting it in your mouth. It’s the most efficient way to handle those enormous slices.

Eating your New York-style pizza with utensils will earn you mockery from locals, as New York mayor Bill de Blasio discovered in 2014.

The OK hand gesture in Brazil

Don't be like former U.S. President Richard Nixon who visited Brazil and flashed an "okay" sign. The crowd in Rio de Janeiro responded with boos. Why? Because in Brazil, the okay sign is like giving the middle finger.

Ordering a cappuccino in Italy after noon

Many Italians associate milk with mornings. This is why many Italians eschew milk after noon. So if you’re in, say, Rome, and are ordering a cappuccino during sunset, you’re sure to mark yourself as a tourist. Still, this isn’t quite as offensive to locals as ordering a cappuccino alongside your meal. Things are changing, however, and you’ll often see younger Italians drinking what they want, when they want it.

Not slurping noodles loudly in Japan

Yes, you read that correctly. In Japan, it’s considered rude not to loudly slurp your noodles while you consume them. Bring that steaming bowl up close to your mouth and slurp away; unlike customs in the western world, slurping is expected of you. Bringing the bowl closer to your face also helps reduce splashing, so it’s as practical as it is courteous in the country.

One thing you should avoid in Japan, as well as in other Asian countries, is spearing your food with chopsticks to eat them (they’re not forks, after all). Especially bad is sticking your chopsticks into a bowl of rice instead of resting them on the side. It’s understandable, when you consider that it makes them resemble a tombstone.

These are only a few common gestures that are considered rude in other countries. Before travelling abroad, you may want to do a little research of your own before departure. It might save you from an embarrassing moment or two.

What international gestures intrigue you the most? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” telc English for more articles on culture from around the world.