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Unique Customs You Won't Find Anywhere Else

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We’ve all heard the saying “When in Rome,” an abbreviated phrase that encourages us to adopt the customs of people or places while traveling — to do, as the saying goes, as the Romans do. Of course, these practices aren’t always obvious and can often contradict common body language or communication cues we’re familiar with in America. Here are nine unique local customs from around the world you should know about so you can mind your manners on your next trip abroad.

9

Shaking Your Head and Nodding in Bulgaria

Two people shaking hands at a table
Credit: PeopleImages/ iStock

While many cultures express agreement with a head nod and a disagreement with a side-to-side head shake, these gestures are opposite in Bulgaria. Nodding your head means no, while shaking your head means yes. It’s unclear how exactly this contrast in customs originated, but some theorize that it dates back to defiance during the Ottoman occupation of the late 14th century. Bulgarians are well aware of the fact that this practice goes against the world’s interpretation of the two gestures and often attempt to adjust for foreigners. In some of the bigger cities, the reversal of the signs for yes and no has even started to switch.

8

Giving a Thumbs Up in Iraq

Person giving a thumbs up through plants
Credit: katya/ Unsplash

It’s one of the most common signs of approval around the world — fingers tucked into your palm with your thumb pointing up. However, in Iraq, giving a thumbs up is actually a lude and rude gesture on par with giving someone the middle finger. It’s believed that in the United States, the gesture and its positive association gained traction during World War II, when pilots would use it to signal to a ground crew that they were ready for take off. Most people in the U.S. and many other countries would probably point to the classic thumbs-up move by the Fonz, a household name from the classic American sitcom “Happy Days,” for popularizing the gesture.

7

Sucking in Air in Northern Sweden

Northern Sweden in winter
Credit: dima7k/ Unsplash

Northern Sweden is home to a funny dialectical quirk — a sharp intake of air through pursed lips that is used to signal agreement or to say yes. It’s used as a more passive way to indicate that you’re listening to and understanding someone just like many cultures nod or murmur an “mmhmm.” Breathing in to speak makes an ingressive sound and while it’s also quite common on the east coast of Canada (where several regional dialects have an inhaled “yeah” as a regular part of their speech), the Swedes are said to use it more frequently.

6

Clinking Beer Glasses Together in Hungary

Two people clinking their beer glasses at sunset
Credit: wilstewart3/ Unsplash

It’s common to clink glasses and exchange whatever the regional version of cheers is around the world, but not in Hungary, where toasts with beer glasses are still considered taboo. It’s popularly believed the superstition dates back to 1848, when Hungary’s revolution was defeated. The victorious Austrian soldiers are said to have celebrated by clinking their beer glasses in a toast, causing Hungarians to vow never to toast with their beer for 150 years. While the timeframe has long passed and it is considered an outdated custom, many still abide by the rule today. Wine drinkers, however, are free to clink as they please.

5

Slurping Noodles in Japan

Japanese noodles on a bamboo placemat with chopsticks
Credit: ALLEKO/ iStock

Most North Americans would shudder at the thought of themselves or others loudly slurping while eating, but in Japan, it’s not only expected, but encouraged. It’s believed that the practice originated as an olfactory experience — slurping soba noodles simply augmented the aromatic flavors when air was taken in through the mouth at the same time. From there, as other dishes such as ramen proliferated, the practice did too. The custom, which is relegated to noodles only, does spark some debate from time to time (some tourists find it distracting or downright offensive), but in Japan, where noodles reign supreme, locals remain unbothered and happily slurp away.

4

Smiling at Strangers in Russia

Aerial view of people walking across crosswalk
Credit: cbarbalis/ Unsplash 

Western etiquette expects us to be polite in public — often teaching us to flash a quick smile of acknowledgement to passersby. But in Russia, smiling at strangers in public is considered a fool’s game and is more likely to cause people to avoid you altogether than consider it inviting. The custom is not tied to any specific instance, but research suggests it could be due to larger historical and cultural circumstances such as a person’s trust in or reliance on their social systems. While smiling might be interpreted as a warm gesture to North Americans, it’s a sign of untrustworthiness to Russians.

3

Passing Things With Your Left Hand in India

Person holding out their left hand
Credit: judebeck/ Unsplash

Lefties have it tough in a world built for right-handed people. In India, it’s actually frowned upon to use your left hand for many things. Here, the left hand is considered unclean and is to be used for tasks that might be messy like washing or taking off shoes. Eating, shaking hands, or passing or receiving anything is to be done with the right hand only. This custom is also observed throughout Nepal and the Middle East, though the diligence with which locals observe it varies by region.

2

Eating With Your Hands in Chile

A slice of an orange on a blue plate on a wooden table
Credit: gigantfotos/ Unsplash 

Dining etiquette varies widely around the world. Within South America, table manners tend to be a little more laid-back, but in Chile, it’s frowned upon to eat any food without a knife and fork. The custom stretches back to the country’s Spanish settlers and Chile’s long-running desire to emulate European culture. Somewhat surprisingly, not even the most universal hand or finger foods are exempt from the formalities including sandwiches or fries.

1

Showing the Sole of Your Shoe in Arabia

Person stretching with the sole of their shoes showing
Credit: PeopleImages/ iStock

In Arabian culture, shoes and feet — especially the sole, the lowest part of a body — are considered unclean. Even showing the shoe or foot’s sole to another person (such as crossing an ankle over a knee when sitting) is considered insulting. Noticeably, shoes are ritualistically removed for prayer, especially inside a mosque, where footwear is forbidden. The significance of the Arabian custom received worldwide attention in 2008, when an Iraqi reporter threw his shoes at President George W. Bush during a press conference in Baghdad.

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