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Local customs

One of the greatest joys of travelling is the chance to experience new cultures. But different ways of life go hand in hand with different values and practices. Respecting local customs will make it easier for you to fit in and will help you avoid accidentally offending anyone.

Body language

Some gestures that we regard as completely innocuous back home may well cause offence in other countries. Remember that cross-cultural differences in body language can be almost as stark as differences in spoken language. Take care with the following gestures as they are the ones most likely to offend:

Thumbs up

In certain areas of West African and Middle Eastern countries, giving someone the thumbs up can be just as rude as giving someone the middle finger in the UK.

OK signal

This hand-gesture, ‘the OK sign’, has a positive meaning in the UK. But in Arab countries it can convey a threat, while in some South American and European countries it conveys a vulgar insult.

‘Come-here’ sign

This gesture, where you curl index finger towards you, is inappropriate in many Asian countries. In the Philippines however, the gesture is so offensive that it carries the risk of arrest.

Pointing

In many cultures, pointing towards someone or something with your index finger is offensive. To err on the side of caution you should point with an open hand, or simply nod your head in the appropriate direction.

Eye contact

In the Western world, eye contact is generally thought of as a mark of respect, but in some Eastern cultures it can be taken as overly direct or rude. On the other hand, whereas we are taught that it is rude to stare, many Latin and Hispanic cultures see eye contact or staring as simple curiosity rather than threatening or rude.

Hands and feet

In Muslim and Hindu societies it is considered unclean and offensive to eat with your left hand or to shake hands using your left hand. Always eat and greet with your right hand.

Feet are also regarded as unclean in many countries. You should avoid showing the soles of your feet: especially in Saudi Arabia and Thailand. Many countries also think that wearing shoes indoors is disrespectful – pay attention to your host and others around you. In some countries, such as Vietnam and China, indoor slippers are provided for visitors in homes or even shops, so be prepared to leave your footwear at the door.

Meeting and greeting

People have different ways of greeting one another across the world, and showing that you are conscious of local etiquette is always a good thing. In some cultures, it is customary to greet people with a formal bow or nod, while in other cultures a handshake or a kiss of the cheek will suffice. Remember that the appropriate greeting will usually vary depending on your relationship with your counterpart.

Business cards

It is customary to exchange business cards at the start of formal meetings in many Asian countries. Always treat a business card handed to you with interest and respect – do not toss it aside or shove it into your pocket. When handing out your own business card, try to do so with both hands and to one individual at a time. Also try to ensure that your business card is written in both English and the local language on either side.

Punctuality

The importance given to punctuality varies from culture to culture. In Japan and Germany, arriving 10 minutes late is quite rude, whereas in other cultures, turning up an hour late to an informal gathering is completely fine.

Embarrassing questions

Don’t forget that in some cultures it is normal for people to ask about your age or your salary when they meet you – don’t take these questions a personal affront.

Gifts

The act of giving and receiving gifts can be complicated in some cultures. For instance, in some African or Arab countries, complementing something in your host’s home may compel them to gift it to you. Different cultures adhere to different traditions and practices when it comes to presents. So to avoid confusion, bear in mind the following:

  • Giving gifts in fours is considered bad luck in Asian cultures. It is also bad luck to give someone a gift that is completely white.
  • Avoid giving flowers as gifts. Although they are appreciated in most cultures, certain types, colours and configurations can signal ill-will to the recipient.
  • In some cultures, recipients may well come across as reluctant to accept your gift. This isn’t rudeness – instead it is simply customary to refuse a gift a certain number of times.
  • Remember not to open a gift that has been given to you until invited to do so by the gift-giver.

Further information

For more guidance on the cultural aspects of travel, see our sections on cultural tips, local languages and local religions.

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The content of these pages are for general information only, They do not constitute advice and must not be acted or relied on as being so.