In your busy life at home, you may not have considered the appropriateness of walking while eating. In fact, there may have been a few times when that’s your only option, or part of the experience, like when perusing an outdoor fair or strolling along a boardwalk. But in Japan, never walk and eat unless you’re savoring an ice cream cone. Eating and walking is a cultural taboo, showing a lack of consideration for the efforts of the cultivator and preparer of the food. In contrast, it’s thought you ought to enjoy take-away food in the comfort of you own home, or at the least, standing near the vendor. Although this Japanese taboo is inconvenient, you might also view it as a reminder to enjoy the food that nurtures your body and provides energy. After all, isn’t trying the food in a foreign land part of the fun of leaving home? Savor it! Also expect negativity if you walk and smoke, which is actually outlawed in some parts of Japan.
When visiting France, getting caught up tasting and celebrating fine wine is easy. But if invited to a French home, be honored, as well as prepared for a long meal, but pick another gift besides wine. The host will select the wine(s) in congruence with the planned meal, so your gift may not be well received. Consider it a cultural taboo to keep in mind. A French person may be offended if you bring any alcoholic beverage other than a liqueur, port or other dessert drink. Don’t bring wine to a German home either, or . . .
. . . eat with your hands in Germany. While Germans will make exceptions for eating outdoors or other informal situations, eat only bread with your hands. Grab a knife and fork for pizza, or even toast, or else prepare to receive strange glances. Utensil usage is the rule in many countries of western Europe, and fruits like pears and apricots may even be approached with pointy weapons rather than cradling hands.
In Egypt, for example, specific rules govern behavior while seated.
The way you comport yourself physically can also be a concern when traveling. It’s easy to forget about taboo gestures while concentrating on speaking another language, trying to understand another’s accent or generally feeling overwhelmed by new surroundings. But in Egypt, for example, specific rules govern behavior while seated. Crossing your legs is frowned upon in Egypt, especially in the presence of a noble person or the master of a house. Because feet are the lowest part of the body and shoes are unclean, paying attention to your feet and footwear is important in Egypt (and many other countries). Keeping both feet on the floor is the surest way to avoid offending anyone by showing your soles. Beware that pointing at anyone with your foot is pure taboo!
In Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway, most westerners won’t find much cultural variation, but should be warned to avoid boisterous, noisy conversations and self-aggrandizement. Calm, even-keeled conversations are the norm. Loud speech, animated gestures and other attention-seeking behavior will embarrass Scandinavians, who may turn away or shield their eyes in that moment and skirt further interactions. Likewise, bragging, self-promotion, vanity and emphasizing personal ambition are frowned upon in these humble, egalitarian countries.
In Vietnam, don’t compliment a baby to the parents or touch anyone on the head.
Conversations follow a similar low-key vein on the other side of the world, in Vietnam. Quarreling aloud and showing anger is taboo in this country. To the Vietnamese, becoming angry in public shows a lack of self-restraint and poor manners. Therefore, it’s important to try to detect when unpleasant or controversial topics have arisen. If something bothers you, try to thwart your anger before it bubbles over. This is an important reminder when traveling around a hot and noisy country like Vietnam, where bargaining is acceptable. Another, more unique suggestion for getting along well in Vietnam is not to compliment a baby to the parents or touch anyone on the head, which are both disrespectful acts. One last taboo for Vietnam- as in Egypt, don’t sit with your feet pointing at a person, altar, shrine, or even a statue!
Cultural differences are part of what makes traveling exhilarating, and if you’re aware of the taboos followed in your destination or by your foreign company, you’re more likely have a great experience. Feel free to let us know if you’ve committed, or how you avoided committing, one of the above taboos in the comments below. We’d also love to hear about interesting taboos from around the world!