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55 American Customs That Won't Fly Overseas

Tipping

Don’t tip if you’re overseas! In some countries, like Japan or South Korea, tipping is seen as an insult. If they do a great job, just let them know. Some say that leaving a tip in these countries gives the message that they look like they need money.

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Sitting in the Back of a Cab

Several countries don’t like it when you sit in the back of a cab. Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, and Ireland all have cabbies that prefer you to sit shotgun if someone isn’t already there. Why? It goes against the rules of egalitarianism – everyone is equal and deserves equal sitting. 

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Drinking Coffee On-the-Go

For Italians, coffee is a way of life, and that way of life is best enjoyed sitting at a café or restaurant. You don’t “get your coffee to-go.” For America, drinking coffee on-the-go is just how we do things. We have things to do and people to see, so we don’t have time to sit for a pick-me-up.

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Giving a Thumbs-Up

In the Middle East, Latin America, Western Africa, Russia, and Greece, a thumbs-up has a pretty negative connotation. In fact, if you did it in one of these countries, you may as well be flipping the bird! Here, it means “good job,” but it may be best to say the words when you’re outside of America. 

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Making a Peace Sign

This one is pretty famous, but some people still make this mistake. In the UK, the peace sign doesn’t mean the same thing as it does here. If you were to make this sign in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, or Australia, be sure to keep your palm facing outward. If your palm is facing toward you, then you’re flipping someone off.

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Laughing with Your Mouth Open

It can be hard not to laugh with your mouth open but avoid it in Japan! Doing so in this country is considered extremely rude. If you can’t help openly chuckling, try to do so with your mouth covered. This is a much more acceptable way to crack up. 

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Customizing Restaurant Orders

Some foreign countries take a lot of pride in the way food is prepared, so adding anything to it can be seen as a huge insult. Even so much as adding extra soy sauce or a bit of catsup is a major faux pas. Here, we add catsup to almost everything, but don’t make this mistake overseas!

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Calling the United States “America”

We’re used to calling the United States “America.” It’s a lot easier than saying the whole thing, but we don't really stop to think that there’s more to the continent than just our country. When you’re visiting South America, tell people you’re from the United States. Otherwise, you may get a few offensive looks.

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Complaining at Restaurants

If your order isn’t right in a restaurant in the United States, you can complain. It’s your right. That being said, don’t try this in Britain. It’s considered extremely bad manners for you to complain about your food. Go ahead and do it in private, but never send a dish back.

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Being Super Late

Most Americans aren’t too pleased if you show up late, but it isn’t the worst thing in the world. In Germany, it’s actually a lot worse. If you’re late there, it’s like you’re sending the message that your time is more valuable spent elsewhere. No one wants to feel like that, so arrive a little early when you’re in Germany. 

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Showing Up on Time

Another major faux pas is arriving on time, or at least it is in some Latin American countries. When you're visiting Argentina, try to arrive a little later than the scheduled time. If you were to show up on time, it would be like arriving an hour early in the United States.

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Getting Doggie Bags

Even if you don’t use the term “doggie bag,” which is admittedly a little insulting, getting food to go in some European countries is frowned upon. Taking food to go in these countries is a serious health hazard and could potentially lead to food poisoning. 

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Making the “OK” Sign

In the U.S. today, making the “OK” sign can be a little testy since it’s been used by some white supremacist groups. Even before that, though, some countries saw it as something super negative. In France, making the “OK” sign could mean you’re calling something or someone worthless.

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Putting Your Hands in Your Pockets

What do people in Turkey do with their hands? Well, they don't put them in their pockets when chatting! Doing so is considered disrespectful and inappropriate. In some countries, putting your hands in your pockets, especially when speaking to someone, is a way to express arrogance.

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Using Your Left Hand

Using your left hand is considered taboo in several cultures. For example, passing something with your left hand in India is “unclean.” India isn’t the only one. You shouldn’t use your left hand in Africa, Sri Lanka, and countries in the Middle East. It’s like slapping them in the face!
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Opening Gifts in Front of the Giver

In many Asian countries, it’s bad form to open a gift immediately after receiving it while you’re still in front of the person who gave it to you. India and China take it very seriously and doing this will make you look greedy. It’s best to wait a bit before opening your present.

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Requiring Personal Space

We Americans love our personal space, and we know that we shouldn’t invade someone’s personal space. That won’t fly overseas. In most other countries, personal space totally isn’t a thing. Sometimes, it’s due to preference, but for many places, it’s because of the population density. 

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Chatting with Random People

So, this one may be a regional thing in the United States, but it isn't out of the ordinary for people to chat up a stranger while they’re at the store or waiting in line. In other countries, however, it’s super off-putting – even if they ask, “How are you?”

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Getting Free Refills

This one may break the hearts of Americans. Those refills you get when you down your soda? Good luck on getting a free one while you’re overseas. Most countries don’t give you free refills. Sometimes, a refill will just be ordering another drink. Even if you're drinking water, be expected to pay. 

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Smiling at Strangers

Smiling is a cultural thing for Americans. Somehow, it became the norm for everyone to smile at each other, but it isn’t like that elsewhere. Smiling at strangers in another country could get you some pretty odd looks. 

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Finishing Your Plate

Eating everything on your plate may be normal in America, but not so much in China, the Philippines, Thailand, and Russia. When you're visiting any of these countries, be sure to leave a bite of food behind. Otherwise, the host may feel as though they didn't provide you with enough food.

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Not Greeting Someone

While many people greet strangers in America, it isn’t taboo NOT to greet someone. That being said, you shouldn’t fail to greet someone when you visit France. The first words out of your mouth should be, “Bonjour, Madam/Monsieur!” If you don’t, you’re signaling to the person that they’re below you. Yikes.

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Not Declining Gifts

In American culture, when someone gives you something, you take it and say thank you. In Japan and China, it’s a cultural norm for a person to refuse their gift a few times before accepting it. According to another custom that made this list, you’re not even supposed to open it right away, either!

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Asking About Employment

When you’re getting to know someone, it’s common to ask them what they do for employment. It breaks the ice, but if you’re in the Netherlands, you just committed a social faux pas. It can appear classist, especially since the Netherlands has a broad social welfare system. 

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Blowing Your Nose

America has a few social rules about blowing your nose; mostly, don't do it in a restaurant. If you’re in China, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, you need to go to the bathroom to blow your nose. Period. Clearing your nostrils in public is considered rude and repulsive. 

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Showing the Soles of Your Feet

It can be tough not to show the soles of your feet in Arab, Muslim, Hindi or Buddhist countries, but you ought to try your best. Even accidentally displaying them to another person is a sign of disrespect because they’re the lowest, dirtiest part of your body.

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Keeping Your Shoes on Inside Someone’s Home

Unless someone has a new carpet or floor, you probably won't take your shoes off while visiting another person’s home. It’s actually custom in most Asian and Caribbean cultures. When entering someone’s home, you take off your shoes in the designated spot. Be careful; in some places, taking your socks off is also pretty bad.

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Going Topless at the Beach

No, we’re not talking about women; although, that’s also pretty taboo in most places. We’re actually talking about men! In South Korea, it’s very rare to see a topless man – even at the beach! Men in South Korea wear a shirt when they’re getting their surf on.

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Inviting People to Help Themselves

This one may not be insulting, but you'll get some weird looks. In America, we have grown to believe in “mi casa es su casa” – my house is your house. However, in some Asian countries, telling someone to help themselves is uncommon, so it'd be odd if you offered su casa overseas.

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Refusing Food

When you’re at someone’s home in the United States, it isn’t unusual for you to refuse food. Usually, we do it to make it easier on the host. Guests in Lebanon and most Arab countries don’t do the same thing. Refusing food offered to you is incredibly rude, so eat up!

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Touching and Hugging Others

No, we don’t mean with your spouse, although some countries find PDA pretty bad. We’re talking about touching or hugging someone that isn’t your significant other. Places like China, Thailand, Korea, and the Middle East would prefer if you respected their personal space and avoided that hug hello.

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Doing “Bull Horns” with Your Hands

Rock concerts call for doing “bull” or “devil horns” with your hands. You could say its American custom. Here, it means “rock on!” but not so much elsewhere. If you made that sign in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and some parts of South America, you’re making a sign that indicates a man’s wife isn't faithful to him. Whoa.

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Showing the Palm of Your Hand

We usually put out the palm of our hands if we want someone to stop. It’s a natural instinct for us, but people in Greece and Pakistan don’t see it the same way. If you put your palm up to people who live there, you're being aggressive toward them.

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Crossing Your Fingers

Crossing our fingers is normal when we’re wishing for something, or we’re trying to keep something we said from being jinxed. In Vietnam, making that symbol is a lot different. It’s a way of mimicking a part of a female body we usually keep covered up at all times when in public!

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Beckoning with Your Hand

How else do you call someone over in a noisy room? In America, it’s pretty tough to find someone that's offended at the beckoning motion, but it’s a lot easier when you’re in the Philippines and many Asian countries. Beckoning them is exceptionally offensive and likened to calling them a dog.

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Showing a Lot of Skin

In some Asian countries, showing off too much skin as a woman can be seen as inappropriate. In America, we’ll happily show our shoulders, especially if it’s super sunny, and we’re trying to get our tan on. In Cambodia, women are supposed to keep themselves respectably covered. 

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Paying with Older Money

If someone handed you a crisp, clean bill, would you take it? In all honesty, you may think it was fake because American money stays in circulation for a long time. However, in some countries, older cash is a no-no. Some shops may refuse money if it’s crinkled, worn, or looks like it’s been around the block.

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Pointing with Index Fingers

Several countries think pointing at something or someone is rude. We do it so often in the United States that we don’t think twice, but if you’re in China, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, and Latin America, it’s awfully impolite. In some countries, like the Philippines, people point with their lips. In others, they use multiple fingers.

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Eating in Public

We’re so on-the-go here that we’re used to seeing people eat in public. We don't even pay attention to it anymore! However, if you’re in an Asian country, you may want to keep the food where you bought it. While the tide is turning for younger folks, some Japanese people think it’s low-class and even rude to eat in public.

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Talking About Mental Health

It isn’t odd for Americans to share their feelings openly. We’re used to it! Plus, when we hear great advice from our therapist, we share it. Not so much in the UK. There, feelings and stuff our therapists told us should be kept under wraps. It’s best to stick to the weather as a conversation topic. 

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Having Pumpkin Mania

When fall hits, pumpkin mania is alive and well. Other countries don’t love the squash nearly as much as we do. Some places are beginning to catch on, but don’t expect to pick up a pumpkin spice latte at an Italian café.  

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Measuring with the Imperial System

There are only three countries that use the imperial measurement system (feet, inches, etc.). Those countries are the United States, Myanmar, and Liberia. Everyone else uses metric. Maybe it’s time to swap over?

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Writing Dates MM/DD/YY

Pretty much everyone else writes their dates DD/MM/YY. It can get pretty confusing for anyone outside of the United States to see the date written as MM/DD/YY—especially if it kind of makes sense both ways, like February 10th (2/10 vs. 10/2).

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Throwing a Baby Shower

Other countries don’t throw baby showers, so it’s weird for Americans to throw one. In fact, some places consider it bad luck to celebrate the baby before it’s born.

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Turning Right on Red

People from other countries get freaked out when they see someone turning right on red. The light is red. That means stop. Here, you’re still good to go when the light is red as long as the path is clear. Just make sure to wait out the red light in other countries!

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Eating Giant Meals

America eats enormous meals, and that’s pretty unique to our country. Studies have shown that people from other places tend to gain weight when they visit America. Even our candy bars are 41% bigger than other places!

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Requiring Massive Variety

Most places overseas don’t have a huge variety of options at the supermarket. We have different flavors, diet, low-fat, low-sodium, big, small, round—the list goes on and on. We just like variety, okay?

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Obsessing Over College Sports

Other countries don’t care about college sports. In America, it’s a huge past time. In fact, entire events are planned around football games. You have to tailgate during football season. It’s just a given. While we’re on the subject, tailgating is pretty weird to other countries, too.

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Going into Debt for College

Europeans consider the cost of higher education in the United States insane. While we pay upwards of $25,000 to $50,000 per year (depending on the institution), countries like France and Germany offer their citizens college without any cost.

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Trick or Treating

This one is pretty upsetting. Trick or treating isn’t really a thing outside of the United States. In fact, some places don’t even celebrate Halloween! That means no candy, no costumes, and no haunted houses. Don’t they know Halloween is the best holiday?  

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Eating Dinner Early

In America, most people eat dinner between the hours of 5:30 pm and 8 pm. Elsewhere? There’s no way anyone will sit at the dinner table before 8 pm. Can you imagine eating dinner that late? As a note, we also tend to have heavier dinners than other places, so that probably contributes to our dining times.

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Working Constantly

Americans work all the time. A report by the Center of Economic Policy and Research found that one in four Americans don’t have guaranteed paid leave. In many European countries, people can get off as much as a month every year.

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Avoiding Harsh Critiques

In America, we kind of beat around the bush when we’re talking to each other. For example, we’re more likely to say, “We’re going to think about our options,” rather than flat out telling someone, “No, we don’t want that.” Saying the latter would be considered pretty rude.  

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Unending Optimism

America’s unending optimism is the subject of many jokes. Whether it’s a business or strangers, we almost always make sure to tell the other person to “have a good day!” Europeans will have whatever kind of day they want to have!

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Carrying in the Open

Open carry or carrying, in general, is a really weird (and frightening) rule to many other countries, and it’s a topic of hot debate. In other places, the only people that are legally allowed to carry are police officers.

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