Travel Intelligence: Do as the Locals Do

Taking on the world’s customs can jumble a traveler’s brain even more than crisscrossing the international date line. That’s where cultural consultant Dean Foster comes in. An expert at helping business executives negotiate sensitive deals overseas, he distills etiquette for a dozen-plus countries with his latest venture, CultureGuide apps.

Still, blunders are inevitable, even for the well meaning. That’s okay, says Foster: “Delight in the expectation that you will experience things you don’t understand. People are generally forgiving of cultural ignorance — you’re not one of us, so how could you know? — as long as you’re respectful.”

Fortunately, a few rules are universal:

Avoid offensive hand gestures. The middle finger isn’t the only digit that disrespects. The Dutch tap thumbnails together in disgust; the A-OK signal is X-rated in Brazil.

Practice the local greeting. Most Thais prefer the wai (palms pressed together as a prayer); the Japanese drop their eyes and bow slightly. Muslims don’t shake hands with the opposite sex.

Be flexible about space norms. Expect to be elbowed and bumped into on the streets and subways of South Korea.

Learn local body language. Don’t point with your index finger in Senegal (instead indicate direction with your chin or tongue) or sit with the soles of your feet aimed at another person in Dubai.

Mind your table manners. In parts of Asia, chopsticks left standing upright in a bowl of rice symbolize death.

Drink as the locals drink. During a toast, Slovaks hold eye contact from the moment a drink is lifted until it’s placed back on the table.

Be aware of fashion statements. In Polynesian cultures such as Hawaii, a flower tucked behind the right ear means you’re single (and ready to mingle). Wearing a striped tie in the U.K. may imply membership in an exclusive club or school.

Tip correctly. Tipping is rare in China but widely expected in Latin America, the Middle East, and beyond — from street sweepers in Cape Town to ushers in St. Petersburg.

This article is part of the Travel Intelligence manual in the the latest issue of Traveler, on newsstands now. Like what you see? Buy the whole issue for your iPad to get the total Traveler experience, including bonus tips from Dean, videos, and audio clips.


  1. samuel
    December 9, 2012, 6:31 pm

    this is a good one.thanks a lot for your great work