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21 Cultural Mistakes to Avoid … When E-mailing or Traveling


Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure nowadays the world really is your oyster. In a matter of hours you can plant yourself on the other side of the world, literally, and immerse yourself into a completely different culture.

travel abroad

As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In other words, if you’re not sure what the local customs are when traveling abroad, follow the cues from the locals.

On the flipside, many people interact with those across the globe on a daily basis by e-mail or phone. Completing a business deal or making a new friend on an international level is now as simple as sending a quick e-mail or making a phone call using skype.

Surely you will notice many cultural similarities in your travels abroad or interactions with those from another culture -- we’re all human beings taking life a day at a time, after all -- but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any differences you need to be aware of. In fact, seemingly innocent gestures or habits that don’t catch a second glance in the United States could embarrass, upset or insult those in another country.

So before you travel anywhere foreign to you – or send an e-mail to your friend or colleague on the other side of the world -- it’s a good idea to get current on the culture and its customs. This can save you loads of embarrassment and in some cases serious trouble.

Six Cultural Mistakes to Avoid When You E-mail

Before you send another international e-mail, make sure you’re not going to offend anyone (or mistakenly be offended yourself).

  1. Be wary who you sends “X’s” and “O’s” to. While it’s common for Americans and Britains to end e-mails with hugs and kisses (xoxo), someone in the Middle East might find this offensive.
  1. In China, “666” is a symbol of good luck, and may be used to sign an e-mail.
  1. In France, if an e-mail is signed with “Cdlt,” it’s short for “cordialement.”
  1. In Dubai, a common way to end a message is “Aa,” which is slang for the Arab greeting “Assalamu alaikum.”
  1. When in doubt, spell it out. If you’re unsure whether your colleague overseas will understand “asap,” “fyi,” or any other e-mail jargon, don’t use it. Spell the words out clearly instead.
  1. Be careful using emoticons. Emoticons are used to convey gestures, feelings, voice inflection or other intonations that may otherwise go unnoticed over the Internet. However, different cultures interpret the symbols in different ways.

For instance, research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that Japanese students rated emoticons with happier eyes as being more happy overall, whereas American students rates those with happier mouths as the happiest.

It turns out that Japanese tend to use emoticons with expressive eyes and a neutral mouth, such as ^_^ , while Americans use the mouth as the focal point:, such as:  :)

15 Top Cultural Mistakes to be Aware Of

What kinds of things should you definitely know if you plan to travel outside of the United States? Here is a primer to get you started.

  1. If you’re going to Thailand, do not touch anyone else’s head, even a child’s, as the head is considered sacred.
  1. In Russia, drinking vodka is a big part of social life, and not drinking is considered offensive. Also be prepared to down a shot in one gulp if you want to be taken seriously.
  1. In Germany, resist talking about sports as it’s considered an uneducated thing to do.
  1. In areas where food is eaten with your hands, such as Africa, Morocco, India and the Middle East, you should use your right hand for eating and your left hand for doing “other” tasks. Eating with your left hand from a communal food bowl will not be smiled upon by your tablemates.
  1. If you go to a sauna or steam room in Scandinavian countries or Turkey, expect to take off your clothes. Clothing comes from the “outside world” and is not considered pure enough for the sauna (also do not be surprised to see entire families enjoying the sauna nude).
  1. Do not blow your nose in public in Japan, China, Saudi Arabia or France, especially if you’re at the dinner table, as it’s considered rude and disgusting. Handkerchiefs should also be avoided in Japan and China (use a disposable tissue instead).
  1. In France it’s rude to refill your wine glass before you’ve offered more to the rest of the table.


Trying to speak the native language is generally appreciated when you’re in a foreign country.

  1. If you’re going to Hawaii, accept every lei that’s given to you. Refusing a lei, which is a symbol of friendship and appreciation, is insulting, as is taking it off immediately or in front of the person who gave it to you.
  1. In Japan, Thailand, China, Finland and some areas of Africa it’s offensive to have conversation over dinner. Instead, focus on eating to show your appreciation for the food.
  1. In London, drunken behavior on Friday evenings is normal among business acquaintances and is expected to be laughed off come Monday.
  1. In Brazil, where plumbing may sometimes be poor, you may be asked to through your toilet paper in a trash bin, rather than the toilet bowl.
  1. In the Middle East, eye contact is very intense and prolonged, and the person may move closer to you to see your eyes close-up.
  1. If you’re toasting a German friend in a beer hall, make sure to make eye contact. Otherwise a German superstition says you’ll both have seven years of bad luck in the bedroom.
  1. In Milan, business associates are expected to always maintain bella figura, which means "showing your best face." Part of bella figura is never admitting you're wrong.
  1. In Mexico, winks, whistles and compliments between men and women are considered friendly introductions, and may be initiated by either gender. Male friends also hug regularly.

Recommended Reading

The 10 Top Dining Etiquette Errors

E-mail Etiquette: 15 Essential Things You Need to Know for Efficient, Effective Email Communication

Sources July 2008 The World’s Worst Cultural Mistakes

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 43, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 303-311

Ars Technica May 14, 2007

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