26 American Habits You Should Ditch on International Soil

Venturing overseas can be thrilling, but it’s easy for Americans to accidentally step on cultural toes without even knowing it. Our cultural norms and behaviors, from loud conversations to casual attire, can inadvertently offend locals in other countries. Let’s unpack common American behaviors that might not translate well abroad.

When a Smile Is Not Well-Received

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A smile is a universal sign of friendliness, right? But in some parts of Asia, like Japan or South Korea, an overtly friendly grin might be misinterpreted as insincere or superficial.

Too Firm a Handshake

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In the US, a firm handshake stands for confidence and trustworthiness. In contrast, countries like China or France prefer a softer grip. You may be perceived as aggressive if you give a too-firm handshake. So, in Paris, don’t grip as if you’re trying to make a sale.

On-Time Means Different Things

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In the US, punctuality is a sign of respect, but in more relaxed cultures like Morocco or Mexico, being “on time” can mean being a little late. Arriving precisely at the specified time for a social event might even be seen as rude.

Thumbs Up? Thumbs Down!

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That casual thumbs-up you give to signal “okay” in the US can be offensive in places like the Middle East. It’s akin to showing the middle finger in those regions. You better stick to verbal affirmatives instead.

Volume Control

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Loud voices are often considered boisterous and fun in the US, but in many countries, particularly in places like Scandinavia or Japan, keeping your voice down is a sign of respect. Locals might perceive you as disrespectful when you talk at a high volume.

Complimenting Children

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In the US, praising a child is seen as encouraging. In contrast, countries like China may view too much praise in public as embarrassing or inappropriate, drawing undue attention to the child.

The Eye Contact Challenge

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Maintaining good eye contact is a sign of attentiveness in America. Yet, in some cultures, particularly in some Asian and African communities, too much eye contact can be seen as a challenge to authority.

Dress Codes Matter

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When you’re traveling, pay attention to local norms. For example, wearing shorts in many Middle Eastern countries isn’t just casual; it’s inappropriate. Dress modestly to show respect for local customs.

Food Faux Pas

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In the US, asking for ketchup might be commonplace, but in places like Italy, asking for extra condiments can offend the chef. It’s like saying the food isn’t good enough as it is.

Right Hand Rule

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In countries like India and some parts of the Middle East, you should only eat with your right hand. The left hand is considered unclean. Remember this dining etiquette when you visit.

Shoes Off, Respect On

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In many Asian households, guests take their shoes off at the door. Wearing them indoors can be seen as dragging dirt through someone’s home.

Gift Giving Etiquette

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Giving gifts is universal, but doing it right varies from country to country. For instance, in China, people should avoid giving clocks as gifts as they symbolize death. Always check local traditions to avoid missteps.

Sensitive Subjects

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While open debate might be expected in the US, topics like politics, religion, or money can be sensitive abroad. In many cultures, people avoid such discussions in casual social settings.

Laughing Out Loud

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In the US, a hearty laugh is a sign of a good time. In Japan, too loud a laugh, especially by women, is viewed as a lack of decorum. Keep your chuckles subdued.

Alcohol Etiquette

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In some countries, like South Korea, for example, if an elder offers you a drink, it is respectful to accept and drink it, even if you don’t finish it. Refusing can be seen as rejecting their hospitality.

Open Door Policy

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In the US, holding the door open is polite. But in some cultures, this can confuse or irritate people, as they might feel pressured to hurry or feel unworthy of such a gesture.

No Walking and Eating in Japan

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In Japan, eating while walking is considered rude. Instead, you should stop, sit, and eat your meal respectfully.

Keep the PDA for Home

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In many countries, public displays of affection are frowned upon. Holding hands may be tolerated, but kissing and hugging in public is a definite no-go in places like the UAE.

Know Your Numbers

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In some cultures, specific numbers have negative connotations. For example, the number four sounds like ‘death’ in Japanese. Avoid giving gifts in sets of four, as it’s a sign of bad luck.

Laugh but Don’t Point

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Pointing with your finger is considered rude in many Asian countries. It’s better to gesture with an open hand or nod in the direction you mean.

Mind Your Feet

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People in many parts of Asia view the feet as the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Pointing your feet at someone, or even worse, at an object of religious significance, can be seen as highly disrespectful. If you’re sitting down, try to keep your feet on the ground and not point them at people.

Queue Quietly

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Americans might be used to forming orderly lines and waiting their turn, but queuing is less structured in some countries. Pushing to maintain your place might come off as aggressive. In places like China or India, personal space in lines is less defined, and what seems like cutting in line is often normal behavior.

Silence Your Cellphone

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A quick call or text in the US might be okay in public spaces, but cell phone conversations on public transport are a big no-no in countries like Japan. Locals consider public spaces like trains and buses to be quiet areas.

Skip the Small Talk

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While Americans might dive into small talk with strangers, countries like Finland see it as superficial. It’s better to speak when you have something to say.

Watch Your Words

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Using slang or idioms can easily cause misunderstanding abroad. Even phrases like “I’m stuffed” could be taken literally rather than indicating you’re full from a meal. It’s better to use clear and simple language, especially when English is not the first language of the country you’re visiting.

When Compliments Complicate

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In some cultures, accepting compliments can be tricky. In Japan, deflecting a compliment is a sign of humility and respect, whereas in the US saying “thank you” is expected if someone praises you. In Japan, a modest response is more appropriate.

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Lori Meek

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