Notes From The Road: How Rude!

One of the best things about travel is regularly having your mind blown by other cultures – their concept of time! how they eat! their social mores!

And attempting to navigate the latter? It’s frequently embarrassing/hilarious/really challenging. If you visit another country there is a 99% chance that, at some point, you will inadvertently do something incredibly rude. And of course, at some point, a local will do or say something to you that will make you huff “Well, I never!” (Or, you know, mutter some choice swears)

Things That I Have Inadvertently Done That Were Culturally Inappropriate

* Not taken off my shoes when entering someone’s house

* Not accepted a second serving of food

* Pointed at something with my foot

* Totally refused to engage in double cheek kissing and greeted everyone with a hand shake

* Threw rubbish in what I thought was a rubbish bin but was actually a ghost money burner

* Didn’t tip

* Made direct eye contact and raised my voice. To, um, my manager.

* Wrote a thank-you note in red pen.

* Wore pants into a Fijian village.

* Talked to people while wearing mirrored sunglasses.

* Responded to someone’s questions with the answer “I don’t care”

Shocking Things People Have Said To Me/I’ve Witnessed

* “You’re pretty, but a little fat.”

* “What happened to your face?” (When I got a tan!)

* “There’s nothing in here that fits you!” (This accompanied by the saleswoman crossing her arms in an X shape)

* “Americans start working when they’re 9 years old, right?”

* “You eat pizza and burgers for lunch everyday?”

* Witnessed public urination about a million times

* “You are very pretty. Why doesn’t your boyfriend want to marry you?”

* Very nearly hit with bettle nut (or normal) spit about a million times

Part of travel is developing a thick skin – both in terms of what people say to you and how you may accidentally offend others. The vast majority of the time, people are incredibly sweet and very likely to cut the well-intentioned gringo some slack. After all, the apologetic smile is international.

What rules of local etiquette have you accidentally broken while traveling? What “rude” things have you heard or seen while abroad?

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  1. LisaD

    oh! first time comment from me! I am loving your adventures in India. Rude things I saw living in China – spitting; snorting goop from noses (people are incredibly accurate when they do this – they can aim it!); holding babies over bins so they can defecate into them; not closing cubicle doors in the bathrooms; but I mean, it's all part of the fun isn't it?

  2. Janelle

    In Amsterdam, I drunk guy was "chatting us up" trying to figure out where we were from. Sweden? no. Norway? no. When he found out we were Americans, he said "Oh! Yes, of course you are Americans, because he is fat, and you are fatter!" Nice.

  3. Han

    In England to show you have finished your meal you put your cutlery together, so if you leave them seperate it's kinda "I'm still eating". Something we discovered in Turkey was that if you put your cutlery together then that meant "I'm still eating" but apart meant it's okay clear my plate – twice I went to the loo and came back and my dinner was gone! (Thank goodness it was a buffet – grab another plate and join the queue!)

  4. Drummbellina

    So funny! Hope you're having an amazing time anyhow! I'd love to see a video of where you're staying and your new friends – if it's not rude to film of course! lol

  5. Chrissy

    This is so funny and interesting! My sister used to live in China – Shanghai, and she did tell some stories similar to yours…funny how different our cultures are!

  6. Rebekah

    Fabulous post, fabulous comments.

    "Threw rubbish in what I thought was a rubbish bin but was actually a ghost money burner."

    My favorite.

    "You are very pretty. Why doesn't your boyfriend want to marry you?"

    In some religious circles, you'll hear this in the US, too. I never came up with a good answer, the question still appalls me. =)

  7. nova

    I have a good one! My sister and I spent around a month in a (super small rural) village in Mexico. We had nothing to do all day every day so we sat around playing go fish in the main downtown square. And we talked to boys. And we smiled at everyone. And we drank beers sometimes without being accompanied by anyone…anyway, long story short, on our VERY LAST DAY THERE the family we were staying with told us that we embarrassed them so much, and the entire town thought we were prostitutes!

    It's a funny story now, but at the time it was absolutely devastating. Why didn't they tell us before the day we were leaving? We would have stopped … whatever it was we were doing wrong!

    I learned then that when I'm hanging out with people from other countries, the best favor you can do for them is tell them when they're crossing a cultural line. Just be like "In Canada we do this instead" or whatever.

  8. Kate

    Despite a decent grasp of spanish, I once walked around all day with the argentine slang for *ahem* oral sex scrawled on my hand in marker. I'd written myself a note to call my friend: "pete"…little did I know those four letters had a totally shocking meaning. Imagine the hilarity when my host family grabbed my arm and demanded to know who had written this on me!

  9. Rachael

    These are all great! When I studied in France, I noticed that many people, upon learning that we were American, immediately raised the volume of their voices several notches. Americans have a reputation for being loud, so they were just trying to make us feel at home. By yelling.

  10. Sara Darling

    Two things come to mind, the first rather sweet, and the second rude but still kinda flattering.

    A friend was teaching English in Japan and I went to visit him. I'm a little above average height here (so rather tall for Japan) and rather… squishily built. At the time I also had my hair dyed crayon red. Let's say I was pretty easy to find in a crowd there. It's considered the height of rudeness to stare in Japan but small children are given a lot of leeway until they enter school, so I got many minutes long stares from small children and sometimes open mouthed shocked faces and pointing. I always tried to wave and smile. Most of them would smile and wave back but a few of the more timid ones would then hide behind their mothers.

    On a trip to Ireland I was walking past a park in Galway with a friend and just after we walked past one older woman said to her friend "Irish girls are getting so fat you can hardly tell who the Americans are anymore." My friend is stick thin, and I got mistaken for being Irish regularly while we were there.

  11. Zia Madeira

    I love reading these!

    I took a photo of someone without asking first. Not my usual practice, and the man apparently got pretty annoyed by it. Since I don't speak Hindi I was just confused as to why everyone was yelling suddenly. After we got back to the hotel I was finally told, so I didn't even get to give my apologies. I am still very embarrassed about it, since apparently he thought that me whitey was having a poke of fun at him, street shoe bell sewer. But really I was just really excited that I was getting bells sewn on to my shoes and was documenting my trip (3000 pics in 3 weeks – all turned out poorly) so I could share with my husband who stayed at home.

  12. meliasaurus

    I worked with a girl who was raised by a very traditional Pakistani family once. She was always very rude to me and she did a lot of the things that you mention here.

    She openly commented on my weight and appearance. The day I met her she complimented me on my figure, but then she started telling me that I needed to eat more and I was too skinny.

    And she always asked me about my boyfriend in a why i thought was too personal. She always asked me if we were going to get married. She didn't understand the fact that I didn't want to get married.

    She also told me that i was stupid once, so she might have just actually been rude.

  13. georgie

    so as it turns out, you're supposed to take your shoes off in japanese changing rooms! i thought the sales assistant was complimenting my shoes, turns out no….. but she was really sweet about it so it was less awkward lol

  14. iris

    So, I have a Korean friend who claims it is normal for people back home to ask her about her weight gain and the like. The comment saying you're a little fat might be perfectly culturally appropriate in that culture, although not in ours.

  15. Emily

    British Taxi Driver: Huh. You're American yeah? Well, you're not fat.

    Me: uhhh, thanks.

    Driver: And you said you're going to football (soccer) practice? You're actually feminine looking. Do you know how to kick a ball?

    Me: um, yeah. Girls can play sports too.

    Driver: Right…right…

  16. fawn

    Eating food while standing.
    Putting toilet paper in the toilet.
    Giving the "wrong" number of flowers.

  17. Shin

    On a trip to Japan early this year my friends and I entered a dessert shop, thinking it was a ramen shop as we were looking for lunch. We were served green tea and after browsing the menu we realised our mistake, so we left the shop hurriedly. I still remember the very irritated look the lady boss gave us when we got up from the table. At least we left the green tea untouched.

  18. DH

    Oh, man. I've a few embarrassing moments.

    In Italy, I was in a bag store that was having a huge sale! I started opening bags, checking out the pockets and lining… etc. but my biggest mistake was picking up what I assumed at the time was the last bag in stock and carrying it around with me. Eventually, I had about 5 bags on my arms and could not figure out why a very worried looking salesperson followed me up and down, through all the levels of the store, repeatedly asking me if I needed help.
    Turns out, I was supposed tell the salesperson what bag I wanted, then she would go to the stockroom and get a "fresh" one that was wrapped in plastic.
    My friend also seriously annoyed a salesperson by trying on a pair of sandals. When we left the store and glanced back by chance- there she was- blowing on and buffing the sandal my friend had touched.
    I guess the lesson here is NO TOUCHY.
    Also, I was leaving London on a very early flight, so I hired a driver to pick me up from my hotel around 3:00AM. While I was waiting in the lobby, a doorman asked me if he could help me. I said, " No, thanks. I'm just waiting for my ride". The doorman immediately cracked a HUGE smile and went over to the front desk staff, who then began to chuckle and "casually" look over to me. I found out later that I pretty much told a stranger I was "waiting for my fuck". oops.

  19. sonja

    Oh I always make the shoe mistake too, but in the opposite way! It just feels so incredibly rude to walk in someones house when wearing shoes so I have hard time remembering that it's completely ok here in US.

    I come from a country where you always take your shoes off when you come home & for me it's so hard to understand how Americans don't do that as well… They're so hygiene-obsessed anyway so taking your shoes off would make perfect sense.

    & the ghost-burner thing was hilarious. It's nice to see that I'm not the only one constantly ending up in awkward situations when abroad…

  20. Adrienne

    I am currently living here in South Korea with my Army Husband. Koreans do not seem very rude, they are being pretty Americanized with all of the military near. And now that families can come over! The only thing I do not really like here is the fact when you are shopping they follow you around IN YOUR BUBBLE. They get very close to you and try to sell you things that you weren't even looking at. Haha.

    other than that, you mention that not taking seconds as being rude. I think my husband and I did that last night at a Korean restaurant we went to. Haha, they offered us more Kimchi, which is not that tasty to us in the first place and we declined. I hope they are not mad! lol


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