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Eight Ways to Not Offend People
Watch your soles in Islamic countries, dress sharply in Brazil and avoid naughty hand gestures to prevent cultural faux pas around
the world.

By Peter Greenberg

I once had a traveling friend who, through no conscious effort of his own, created a handful of international incidents. He was the
quintessential culturally challenged, ugly American.

In Jordan, he sat in a chair with his legs crossed, the soles of his shoes pointed directly at his host's head.
That's a cultural no-no.

In India and in Thailand, he repeatedly patted the heads of children he met.

And in Brazil, he unwittingly made the “A-OK” sign with his right hand (circling his index finger to meet his thumb with his other three
fingers pointing skyward). In most other parts of the world, it's a positive sign; in Brazil, it’s as if you are giving someone the finger.
Fortunately, I was able to pull him out of that bar before things got ugly.
My friend never learned his lesson, which is why he no longer travels with me. Whether you’re traveling for
business or pleasure, it’s essential to pay attention to local customs and social cues to avoid embarrassment,
or worse.

In my 20-plus years of being on the road constantly, I’ve watched the world grow astonishingly smaller.
Increased connectivity with the Internet, cell phones and now social media have all encouraged cross-cultural
awareness. An American traveler may no longer find it strange when a Japanese host offers slippers at the
front door, or be offended when a dinner party in Argentina starts two hours late.

But for those visitors who aren’t aware of cultural mores, these and other differences may lead them to
unwittingly offend their hosts.

Here are just a few of my red flags of cultural caution:
1. Watch your soles
Remember the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoe at then-President George W. Bush? The
angry reporter didn’t simply choose the closest weapon. In Islamic culture, throwing a shoe is
an enormous insult.   

As a traveler, you certainly have no plans to hurl a boot at your host. But even crossing your
legs so the bottom of your shoe is facing him can be viewed as an offensive gesture.

In Thailand, it’s considered rude to cross your legs and point your toes at another person.
(And, as you may have guessed, under no circumstances should you ever touch a Thai
person on the head. Thais consider the head the most sacred part of the body, and to touch it
is a sign of great disrespect. If it happens accidentally, offer an apology immediately.)
Many Asian and Middle Eastern countries require guests to remove their shoes when entering a home or a religious site. If the idea
of trodding barefoot or wearing someone else’s slippers makes you uncomfortable, always carry a clean pair of socks.
While countries such as Jordan tend to
have more relaxed attitudes toward how
foreigners dress and behave, watch out
if you travel to Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi
or other Middle Eastern locales with
more restrictive rules. Women should
always err on the safe side by dressing
conservatively with loose-fitting clothes.
When entering a mosque, both men and
women should keep their extremities
completely covered, including wrists and
How about places where the locals
dress to impress? In Brazil, for
example, it’s wise to wear business
attire in corporate settings. That means
a three-piece suit for men, and ladies,
I’m sorry if this offends, but a feminine,
form-fitting suit or dress is considered
the cultural norm.  
2. Dress to impress, or at least not offend
3. Mark your calendar
If visiting any Islamic country during Ramadan — whether it’s
Egypt, Indonesia or Turkey — don’t expect the locals to join you
for lunch. During that month, Muslims don’t eat, drink or smoke
during daylight hours. The rules don’t necessarily extend to
visiting foreigners, but out of respect, it’s wise to abstain from food
when in public.
4. Eat right
Here’s a common scenario in several south Asian and Middle Eastern
countries. When visiting a home or a casual eatery (less so in hotels and
upscale restaurants), don’t be surprised to see locals eating with their hands.
But pay attention: What you won’t see are people eating with their left hands.
Many cultures consider the left hand to be unclean.
6. Give the gift of respect
Bringing a host a token of appreciation is rarely a bad thing, but watch
out for the tricky rules of gift-giving. In many countries, including
Hungary, China and several parts of Latin America, giving a knife is
considered a symbol of severing the friendship. However, there is a way
around it; the recipient can offer you a coin in return, which neutralizes
the bad luck. If you want to be on the safe side, tape a penny to the
blade that can be returned to you.

Or, avoid complication and bring a nice bottle of wine instead, unless you’
re visiting a strict Islamic or Mormon household. In that case, a plant is a
nice touch.
5. Follow the law
Over the years, Singapore has gotten somewhat of a bad reputation for being a
fine-happy nanny state. Misdemeanors such as spitting and not flushing a toilet, as
dictated by the government, could result in hefty penalties.

In 1992, the government banned the import and sale of chewing gum based on
concerns that improperly disposed gum was soiling sidewalks and other public
spaces. The act of chewing — or even possessing — gum was akin to littering. In
2004, however, Singapore partially lifted that ban and began to allow the sale of
chewing gum considered to have health benefits. (In fact, that repeal was part of a
U.S.-Singapore free trade agreement, which allowed American companies to sell
nicotine and tooth-whitening gums with a prescription.) In 2010, the law was
upheld. Still, I wouldn’t advise breaking out your pack of Wrigley’s while wandering
through Singapore.
7. Have fun, within reason
Markets and bazaars in countries such as Morocco, Egypt and India
are prime places to practice your haggling skills. In fact, it may be
considered rude not to bargain. But don’t haggle just for the fun of it.
Be assertive but not aggressive, be realistic with your price point, and
be prepared to make the purchase if you reach an agreeable price.
8. Above all, respect yourself and others
When in doubt, follow the rules of common courtesy and most
importantly, common sense.

Pay attention to social cues. If you’re with a group of Asians and the
elders are doing all the talking, don’t interrupt. If you’re dining with the
French and everyone is speaking over one another, feel free to join the
fray. And if you’re a smoker, look around to see who is doing what — in
south Asian countries, it’s considered impolite to smoke in front of your

In many cases, finding out the rules of etiquette is as simple as asking
a local, whether it’s your hotel concierge, a cab driver or a waiter.
Common sense, above all, is how to go about making friends and
influencing people — globally.
Peter Greenberg is travel editor for CBS News. He is also the author of The New York Times best-seller “Don’t Go There!” and
“Tough Times, Great Travels,” and host of the nationally syndicated Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio show, as well as travel
editor at large for AARP. Visit him on the Web at .
A cold-blooded crime
A California man returned from Australia with 11 skunks,
2 lizards, and 2 geckos — all of them strapped to his chest. By
our count, that's 15 more lizards than you're legally allowed to
attach to your torso and bring into the country. Officials nabbed
him at Los Angeles International Airport with the illicit reptiles,
which were worth more than $8,500 to exotic-animal collectors.

Don't point that at me!
After passing through security gates at the Baltimore-
Washington airport, a man took off running to the nearest
restroom — barefoot, not even taking the time to put his shoes
back on after walking through the X-ray machines. When security
officials caught up with him, they discovered that he had hidden
a can of Mace pepper spray in his body cavity. No word yet on
what he was trying to protect himself from — or how he intended
to take aim.
Smells like sausage, looks like …
A 21-year-old woman received a $300 fine after she was caught
smuggling 5.5 pounds of chorizo from Mexico into the U.S. She had
safely stowed the brown pork sausage in baby diapers for the trip. Take
this tale into consideration the next time you're thinking of buying black-
market chorizo: You really don't know where it's been.
Taking it from the streets
After a visit to Boston, a tourist flying out of Logan Airport was stopped by TSA agents who discovered a massive, 15-pound
piece of cobblestone in the passenger's carry-on luggage. The passenger explained that he'd picked up the loose chunk near
the Union Oyster House and wanted to bring it home because it looked so historic. A TSA agent on the scene replied, "For crying
out loud, if every visitor did that, we'd have no more history!"

Please don't flirt with the septuagenarians
A 71-year-old woman was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon after she attempted to get through airport
security in Tampa with a small leather club known as a blackjack. When asked why she had the item, the confident passenger
replied, "To smack men's hands when they get fresh."
Is that a monkey in your pants, or …
Actually, it was two live pygmy monkeys, smuggled into
LAX in the pants of a California man. He also carried what
amounted to an entire biodiversity exhibit, including four
exotic birds and 50 rare orchids he had taken from
Indonesia. How was he caught? During an inspection in
L.A., a bird hopped out of his bag and flew around the
terminal. The man, who claimed to be a concerned
environmentalist hoping to deliver his finds to a wildlife
sanctuary in Costa Rica, was eventually sentenced to 57
days in jail and fined $15,000. The monkeys were
released from the man's pants and sent to more
expansive quarters at the Los Angeles Zoo.
Bizarre Traveler Behaviour
Security officials at borders and airports see some strange things. How strange? Let us count the ways.
It's the dairy, stupid
Something must have smelled fishy — or rather, cheesy.
And given the size of the stash, it's no surprise. A man
towing a U-Haul across the U.S. border from Mexico was
stopped at a traffic checkpoint in Falfurrias, Tex., where
agents seized 3,664 pounds of Mexican white cheese (a
weight heavier than a Ford Mustang) valued at about
$8,000. It's a little excessive, but, hey, people overpack for
trips all the time.
An inadvisable response to the "no liquids" rule
Strange incidents aren't limited strictly to U.S. airports, of course. At a security checkpoint
in Nürnberg, Germany, agents told a 64-year-old man carrying a liter of vodka that they
wouldn't allow the booze in his carry-on. Instead of pouring it out or paying to check the
bottle in his luggage, the man promptly dispensed of his problem by chugging it all down.
Soon enough, he could neither stand nor function and had to be treated for alcohol
poisoning. Which explains the tiny bottles handed out by flight attendants.
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