9 Local customs worth knowing about

Richard Mellor

Giving a thumbs-up in Greece could cause grave offence, while no self-respecting Italian drinks cappuccino after midday

India: Never eat with your left hand

If there was an Indian etiquette manual, page one would likely be about hands.

Both paws have a purpose here. Ditto in Sri Lanka.

Most importantly, your right is for eating – supposedly food tastes better this way, as one is closer to the nature which produced it – while the left is considered an unclean ‘bathroom’ hand and used for removing shoes or cleaning oneself. Using it for dining or greeting is rude.

 

Iran: Avoid eating forever

Clear your plate in an Iranian home and your host is near-certain to provide seconds.

Do so again, and thirds will soon ensue. And so on, and so on. While this might sound like heaven to greedy pigs, ordinary eaters may soon find themselves in a far-too-tight spot.

The trick is to leave a little of your chelo kebab or fesenjan stew; this implies that you’ve had enough. Otherwise the Iranian staple of civility – known as ta’arof – will prevail, and you’ll eat until you pop.

 

Greece: Thumbs down for a thumbs up

Despite Facebook’s best efforts, the thumbs-up gesture isn’t positive in Greece (nor in West Africa, the Middle East, lots of Latin America and southern Italy).

A raised thumb in Athens or Alonissos means ‘up yours’ – it’s the equivalent of flipping the bird.

So whether you’re hitchhiking or signalling approval, don’t be surprised if some angry invective follows.

 

Vietnam: Don’t cross your fingers

While we’re on the subject of hand signals gone wrong, that otherwise-universal sign for ‘fingers crossed – hooking your middle and index fingers – means anything but good luck in Vietnam.

For the Vietnamese, crossed fingers symbolise a certain part of the female anatomy, meaning that the gesture inadvertently functions as a coarse insult to the recipient.

 

Russia: Don’t buy anyone yellow flowers

Especially not a romantic partner. While bouquets are otherwise welcome, yellow flowers are a symbol of infidelity and the end of a relationship – probably not the messages you want to be offering on a date.

 

Italy: What not to do in the afternoon

After lunchtime in Italy, it’s customary to say “buonasera” (good evening), even if there are hours of daylight ahead. You won’t offend anyone with a “buon pomeriggio” (good afternoon) or “buongiorno” (good day), but there could be some scorn coming your way.

Speaking of afternoons, Italians never order a cappuccino after midday. The idea of one after dinner is akin to sacrilege; after mornings, it’s espresso all the way...

 

Japan: Take those undies off!

While hygiene or etiquette rules in other countries tend towards covering up, the rules of Japanese onsen – hot-spring baths – are non-negotiable: you enter starkers.

A towel can accompany you to the edge of the pool, but it must be left there.

 

Mexico: Make sure you’re late

Don’t you hate it when dinner-party guests turn up late? Mexicans, on the contrary, expect it, and get annoyed at those who arrive punctually for private get-togethers.

This is considered rude: the politest invitees rock up about half an hour tardy. Note that this definitely doesn’t apply to restaurant reservations, courtroom appointments or plane-rides.

 

China: Chopsticks and burping

Here’s a classic: leave your chopsticks upright in your bowl in China (and Japan) and you’ll do two things: honour the dead, and offend every native in the restaurant. Burp in a Chinese noodle house, however, and it’ll go down very well: that’s a sign of culinary enjoyment, and basically works as praise.

 

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