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15 Cultural Taboos to Avoid When You Travel

One of the joys of travelling is getting to experience other cultures up close, however hundreds of years of tradition and different living conditions can lead to some cultural practices that seem bizarre and nonsensical. Worse, a word or gesture used casually at home can cause offence to your new friends. Here are some ways to avoid an awkward situation and make the most of your holiday.

Cultural taboos

So there are two things that affect your conduct in foreign countries, first is doing a little research on the specific countries customs. This can easily be found on the internet or in the beginning part of most guidebooks and will cover the most important and common culture clashes to avoid.

The second is to try and not be an A hole! I know a holiday is the time to wind down, often with a few beers but we all know deep down when we have taken it a bit far. Getting naked in public, fondling public artworks, pooping in public places and defacing monuments are all common complaints. So keep your head on your shoulders eh, if you wouldn’t do it on a trip into town back home with your mum, then you shouldn’t be doing it at a sacred site on the other side of the world. It’s not rocket science, show some respect.

toilet customs

With those two tips in mind here are 15 quirky travel taboos to avoid on your next trip:

  • Korea – it is customary to obey and do small tasks for people older than yourself even if by only a year.

  • South East Asia – it is common to agree to a direct correction, you must phrase questions in an open manner rather than yes/no to get an accurate answer.

  • Russia – turning down a drink of vodka can be offensive.

  • Cambodia – eating all the food on your plate shows the host does not feed you enough, always leave a little something.

  • Brazil – the hand signal that means ok in the US means you’re an A hole.

  • Thailand – Thai’s are very protective of their King, speaking ill of him or defacing his image in any way (this includes notes and stamps) is considered a crime.

  • Asia – don’t point at someone with your finger, if you have to gesture use your elbow.

  • Japan – leaving chopsticks stuck upright in a bowl is considered an ill omen.

  • Albania – locals nod to indicate no and shake their heads to indicate yes.

  • Ukraine – never give an even number of flowers as even bouquets are only used for funerals.

  • Asia – in many Asian and Middle Eastern country the sole of the foot is considered unclean and pointing them at people or throwing shoes is a grave offence.

  • UK – only make the peace sign with your palm facing away from you, back of the hand facing away means F you.

  • Russia – greeting someone in a doorway in Russia is considered bad luck and can start a serious argument.

  • UAE – public affection and sexual contact in public are illegal and can get you arrested as can eating outside during the day during Ramadan.

  • South Asia – in many places profusely thanking your hosts for meals and hospitality is considered offensive. It is considered an honor to host people in your home.

common sense respect

Still miscommunications happen, what seems like an infuriating experience, like me becoming incredibly lost due to a friendly policeman agreeing “yes we are here” when I asked “are we here?” rather than “where are we?” while asking directions in Indonesia. Can be viewed in another light if you understand the tradition behind the response, even if the reason doesn’t make sense to you, you can understand the practice.

In this instance the man was showing me respect by agreeing with me to show I was an important person. Don’t get me wrong after an hour of trudging around with my pack on looking for a hotel that was on the other side of town I was much less understanding but what can I say, I learnt a lesson about the culture I will never forget.

Show respect to traditions

The other benefit (apart from not looking like a wally or getting randomly arrested) in respecting cultural taboos is that your experience with the locals can change entirely, people open up when they see you making an effort and are more likely to share their time and stories with you. If travel is about having new experiences and exploring new cultures then avoiding cultural taboos is an easy way to meet more local people and have genuine experiences, that and you represent your own culture with dignity.


If you enjoyed this post check out this one on how to not be a clichéd backpacker and share this post with your friends on social media.

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