Ugly Americans: Watch Your Chopsticks and Your Feet!

Lonely Planet compiles list of cultural faux pas for traveling overseas.

March 3, 2011, 11:55 AM

March 3, 2011— -- When in Asia, it's never a good idea to stick your chopsticks straight up in the rice -- that's how food is offered to the dead. And while you're at it, don't pass your chopsticks to anyone else at the table -- that's a Buddhist funeral rite.

But if you are in Japan, it's OK to slurp your noodles. Just don't fill your own glass with alcohol; instead, you should pour for others and wait for them to reciprocate. Otherwise, they'll think you're an alcoholic. And to show appreciation, give a gift, never cash.

Those faux pas are just a few of the many that American travelers should avoid when exploring the world, according to a new online guide to international etiquette provided by the Lonely Planet. The guide covers drinking habits, table manners, tipping and bargaining, body language and business etiquette.

Lonely Planet is the largest travel guide book and digital media publisher in the world, publishing about 500 titles in eight languages, as well as TV programs, a magazine, mobile phone applications and web sites.

"It celebrates the fun of travel," said U.S. editor Robert Reid, whose team pulled together tidbits from various cross-cultural books. "It comes out of years of going to a lot of these places. Sometimes they are funny and sometimes they are informative. The whole idea of etiquette is what makes travel great."

Not on the list, but one of Reid's favorite travel tips is the way a Bulgarian says "Yes."

"They shake yes and nod no. The reverse of our head gestures. It's nutty and hilarious. Perhaps they did it to confuse the Ottoman Empire or Greeks. No one knows for sure," he said.

"You are also not allowed to say 'no,' a lot in Asia. It's a losing-face thing. If you ask, 'Can I do this?' they say yes, and you get a quick nod, which usually means no. There is something about not wanting you to feel bad."

Some of the tips reflect historical customs. The handshake, now used the world over, began in the Fiji Islands about two centuries ago, according to Reid.

"You can also pick your nose in Asia," he said. "About 90 percent of the world picks their nose. Someone in England died from doing it a couple of years ago. His nosebleed got so bad, he fell and died. If it's that serious, maybe people should go to China and Thailand where people generally walk around with their fingers up their noses."

In restaurants in Portugal, don't ask for salt and pepper or you will be insulting the cook, who is highly respected there. Never go Dutch in Paris -- splitting the bill, or even talking about money at the table, is the height of unsophistication.

Be careful waving to a Greek with an open palm, the equivalent of flipping them the bird. Same goes in England, where the upside-down victory sign motioned upwards means up yours.

Drinking Tip for International Travelers

The Lonely Planet guide also includes helpful drinking tips.

In Armenia, if you empty a bottle into someone's glass, it obliges them to buy the next one. In Australia, "shouting" drinks is a revered custom, as locals buy each other rounds.

In Russia, vodka is for toasting, not for casual sipping. Men, but not women, are expected to down shots in one gulp. And always place the empty bottle on the floor.

Pay attention to your feet, too.

In Asia, never touch any part of someone else's body with your foot, which is considered the "lowest" part of the body. If it happens accidentally, quickly apologize by touching your hand to the person's arm and then touch your own head. And don't point at objects with your feet or prop them up on chairs.

Never ruffle a person's hair in Asia, either. It's the most sacred part of the body.

Shaking hands across a threshold in Russia is considered unlucky. Wash your feet before entering a Japanese bath -- not to do so is like peeing in an American pool.

And for business travelers in Brazil, don't be offended if a client answers his cell phone in mid-conversation with you. Not to do so is rude. But you can be up to 30 minutes late for an appointment -- that's common. And never insult the royal family in Denmark; it always offends everyone else.

Reid dispels the myth of the ugly American, but for inexperienced travelers, remember that it's attitude that counts.

"Open yourself up to different cultures and learning," said Reid. "People make mistakes. If you walk into a Buddhist temple with your shoes, and they ask you to take them off, don't say, 'Gosh, that would never happen in my Presbyterian church at home.'

"If you are understanding and apologizing and respectful, you learn something from it. People make mistakes, and it's OK."

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