How To Offend People Everywhere Without Uttering A Word

Oh, you did NOT just do that, did you???
Photo by J Aaron Farr

It’s never been easier to offend other people, even without meaning to.

We at Yappn are all about enabling the world to communicate better, no matter what language you speak. We strive hard to help you avoid the sort of embarrassing faux pas that result in Not Safe For Work bad translations or accidentally insulting other cultures or religions.  (We have absolutely nothing against Elbonians and the highest regard for the Jedi!)

Today, frequent transatlantic travel and the Internet give us more opportunities than ever to offend other cultures (hopefully only accidentally) without ever opening our mouths or typing a single word. Here are a few ways you can avoid the sort of cultural faux pas that will start an international incident, or at the very least get you banned from that particular restaurant.

When it’s not “OK”

A-Ok sign cultural faux pas

Not cool in Venezuela and Brazil and will get you in trouble in certain Turkish neighborhoods too. Photo by George Redgrave on Flickr

In France the “OK” hand gesture means that you’re worthless. In some parts of South America it’s a particularly rude gesture signifying a specific “private” body part and it’s especially offensive in some Turkish neighborhoods as an insult to gay men.

Don’t bare your sole in the Middle East or Africa

The bottom of your shoe or foot is a grave insult in many Arab countries. It won’t even be forgiven to display them by accident. This can be particularly challenging if you’re sitting on the ground or floor while eating as you do in some places. Remember your first-grade teacher remonstrating you with “Feet flat on the floor”? Excellent advice for visiting the Middle East and parts of Africa.

How to mean business rather than be mean in business

North Americans love to exchange business cards and stuff them in our pockets, wallets or purses to review and enter into our mobile later. However, it’s bad form in Asian cultures, where you would no more offer a ratty-looking business card than you would shake someone’s hand with your own clearly unwashed one. Hold theirs respectfully in both hands and scrutinize it as though it’s inscribed with the meaning of life. Speaking of hands, don’t offer your card with the wrong one – your left – because that’s the ‘unclean hand’ no matter how much soap and sanitizer you use. You probably already know to eat only with the right hand in the Middle East but you don’t want to use the left on your crisp and fresh business card either. In fact, if you’re unclear on the business card concept there’s a whole three and a half minute video to teach you how to give and accept business cards in Asia.

The straight poop for you and your dog

If you’ve ever visited Iceland you were likely surprised to find how clean it is – even in the capital of Reykjavik, which granted is a small town compared to other nations’ capitals. However Iceland has an increasing problem with unscooped excrement, and not just from dogs. Much of the tiny volcanic country is pristine nature and there aren’t always bathrooms or porta-potties available. It’s okay to duck behind a bush or a tree but it’s not okay to leave your deposit there, however discreetly. Icelanders have a very deep respect for nature and everywhere you go outside the city you’ll be regularly reminded to leave the area as you found it. So no kidding, if you do need to answer the call of nature in the most natural of environments, scoop it and bag it the way you would for your dog and keep an eye out for the next trash can.

Gift-Giving: How to avoid being the ‘iron rooster’

This is another potential conundrum for tourists and business travelers, and not just for North Americans. Giving gifts is far more fraught with danger in North America, where increasingly rigorous compliance laws and anti-bribery initiatives are turning the custom into a veritable minefield. Business visitors who think it would be the height of courtesy and respect to gift their hosts may find it politely rejected for legal reasons. But when visiting China, business gifts are expected, must always be reciprocated and you may even be asked what you would like, so be prepared with a better answer than, ‘Oh, you don’t have to do that’. Also, make sure to give something nice yourself or you’ll be seen as one from whom it’s more difficult to get a good gift than to get a feather from an ‘iron rooster’.

Related: Cross-Cultural Gift-Giving Etiquette

Where you use all your fingers to give someone ‘the bird’

moutza Greek cultural faux pas

How to get your A-OK kicked in some parts of the world. Photo by Bark on Flickr

The ‘moutza’ is as bad as giving someone the middle finger in North America. It’s extending all five fingers the way we would to demonstrate the number. If you keep your palm facing inward you’ll be fine but If you extend the palm outward, hilarity will not ensue in Greece, Pakistan and many parts of Asia and eastern Europe. The ‘double moutza’ is even worse when you use both hands. Want to maximize the offense? Use both hands one right behind the other.

Open palms and the placement thereof are problematic in many places. The ‘peace sign’ is a vulgarity in the United Kingdom and Australia if the palm faces outward. In the Philippines, you can actually get arrested if you beckon someone with your palm up and a curling finger – the proper way is palm down as palm up is how you signal your dog.

The Ugly Non-American

Americans have feelings too and they can be culturally offended just like everyone else. One of the biggest mistakes foreigners can make is being a little too open and frank in a culture that values speaking one’s mind. Americans are famously direct but there’s such a thing as being too direct. Be careful about asking personal questions or voicing overly-critical opinions and of course, avoid politics and religion.

Related: 10 Things Brits Don’t Realize Are Offensive To Americans

Do your research before you go anywhere

Just a little research goes a long way on customs and courtesies for traveling to other countries, even if it’s just the one next door. Conduct a search on cultural faux pas or mistakes in the regions you will be traveling and you’ll avoid the most common miscommunication and misunderstandings. There are also good books and videos on global business and tourist etiquette.

Even if you don’t speak their language, understanding another culture’s basics of common courtesy doesn’t take much time and promotes better relations when you’re traveling abroad. And who knows? Maybe someone will be so impressed with your cosmopolitan manners that they’ll buy you a drink.




Yappn Corp is an enhanced machine translation company for over a hundred languages with an office in Canada, a country famously phobic about causing offense. For more non-inflammatory information please contact or call us at +1.905.763.3510 x339.


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Written by Nicole Chardenet, Sales Development Rep at Yappn

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