7 Social Norms from Around the Globe That Might Not Sound So Normal to Americans

A market in Beijing (Photo: Zhang Kaiyv,  Unsplash )

A market in Beijing (Photo: Zhang Kaiyv, Unsplash)

It could easily be argued that the U.S. is near the top of the list when it comes to countries that are so contained within their own bubbles that people tend not to think about the way life is lived in other places. This isn’t to say Americans are uncultured necessarily (though that is sometimes the case), it’s more likely a symptom of being wrapped up in our own little worlds. In the U.S. and elsewhere, getting people to care about something that doesn’t personally affect them on a day-to-day basis is quite a tall task.

The fact that Americans are using less vacation time — and are sometimes even discouraged from taking time off — is another disincentive for learning about cultures and customs that exist outside our borders, as is the myth that the world is a big, scary place and we’d be better off simply staying put.

Though it may sound a little morbid, I oftentimes think: you can die anywhere, any time, so what’s the point of living a sheltered life? Yes, there are dangerous places out there, but there is also a lot of beauty, countless stories, interesting people, and different ways of approaching life — not to mention, more than a handful of countries who, believe it or not, are better off than the U.S. While I don’t plan on getting into the reasons I believe that, here are some social norms from other parts of the world that may sound a little odd to American ears:

1. Tipping in Japan, South Korea, & Elsewhere

Leaving a tip of anywhere between 15 to 20 percent (or more) is so standard in the U.S. that many of us do it automatically without thinking too much about it. In other countries, such as Japan, South Korea, and China, however, leaving gratuity will likely get you an odd look, if not an offended one. This is because in these places and others, tipping is not part of the culture and can actually be seen as an insult — as in: “Here’s some extra money because I don’t think you make enough as a server.”

2. Where to Sit in a Cab in Australia, New Zealand, & Elsewhere

Here in the states, your Uber or Lyft pulls up and you don’t even have to think about where in the car you’ll be sitting: you head for the back seat, without question. Only when you have a loaded car would someone sit up front by the driver, but in other parts of the world, including in Australia, New Zealand, and in some parts of Europe, sitting in the back is considered rude. While you can obviously sit wherever you’d like, riding shotgun in these parts is the norm.

In some places, such as Ghana and Nigeria, it’s customary to do everything with your right hand (Photo: Cytonn Photography,  Unsplash )

In some places, such as Ghana and Nigeria, it’s customary to do everything with your right hand (Photo: Cytonn Photography, Unsplash)

3. Referring to the U.S.A. as “America”

I know I used the term “Americans” up above, but if you were to do this — or generally refer to the U.S. as “America” — in a country like Brazil or Colombia, you’ll likely earn yourself the stink eye. Calling the U.S. “America” sort of implies that it is the only part of the world that can properly be given that title, thus doing so in South America will not do you any favors. And hey, leave the tarnishing of the U.S.’s global reputation to the current president, all right?

4. Arriving on Time in South & Latin American Countries

In the U.S., arriving on time equates with being late. In the rest of the Americas, this is not quite the case. Arriving late is actually the respectful thing to do in some places, including in Argentina, where it’s customary for people to arrive at events between 20 to 40 minutes late. Showing up right on time in many of these places would be like showing up an hour early in the U.S.

5. Using Your Left Hand in Ghana, Nigeria, & Elsewhere

We may not put much emphasis on handedness in the U.S. anymore, but in some places, especially in Africa and the Middle East, which hand you use to perform a task does matter. Whether or not they use toilet paper (and some places don’t), the left hand is customarily the one used to clean up after oneself following a visit to the bathroom. That in mind, using your left hand to eat food, greet someone, or do anything else really is considered offensive, especially in places like Ghana.

6. Adding Condiments to Food in Spain, France, & Elsewhere

Altering the taste of your meal with ketchup, mustard, pepper, salt, or whatever else, is common enough in the States, but doing this in some parts of Europe will not go over so well. If you find yourself out to eat in the likes of Spain, France, or Italy, and don’t see any condiments on the table already, it’s probably better not to ask your server for them. Seeking to alter your food can be seen as insulting, especially if you’re, say, sitting down to a home-cooked meal in Spain.

7. Giving Gifts in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, & Elsewhere

When it comes to giving gifts in these two Middle Eastern countries, don’t. Receiving a gift from anyone other than a very close friend is considered embarrassing. Those who do give gifts put a lot of thought into it, making sure appreciation and respect are wrapped up in the entire gesture. Gift-giving in other parts of the world, such as China and Singapore, is also a little less straightforward than what we’re used to in the U.S., with the person on the receiving end expected to refuse the gift a few times before ultimately accepting, so as to avoid appearing greedy or impatient.

-LTH