Traveling to Asia? Avoid These Common Cultural Mistakes10 min read
As a Westerner, your trip to Asia will be filled with exciting new experiences as well as a few challenges. The time difference, new foods, and complex itineraries can throw even the most experienced traveler for a loop. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all, however, will be the different customs and traditions you’ll encounter along the way. Navigating them successfully requires that you do a little research before you go, keep an open mind, and never assume that you know best. Something that may be polite or acceptable in the United States or Europe may cause your Asian host to raise an eyebrow, ruin a fun evening, or even bring your promising business deal to a screeching halt. Our expert travelers, Asian locals, and Western ex-pats living abroad share some of the do’s and don’ts for traveling in Asia.
Be Aware of Your Body Language and Touching
While you should always act naturally and in line with your personality, keep in mind that many Asian cultures are more reserved than the West. Big body movements, overt signs of friendship (back slapping and touching) and public displays of affection among romantic partners are typically frowned upon.
It’s also unacceptable to touch someone’s head in most Asian countries. Buddhism is a common religion, and Buddhists consider the head to be sacred. It’s seen as the location of the spirit and the soul. For that reason, you should never touch someone’s head – even to give a small child an affectionate pat.
However, despite the tendency to touch less, Asian standards for personal space are much different than they are in the West. “Personal space is much smaller in China because the population density is so high,” said Derek McLane of Petplan. “People talk closer to you, and Westerners tend to move back when this happens. This can cause a few misunderstandings.” Along the same lines, it’s common for people in China to cut in line while queueing. It’s not considered a big deal and not something to get angry about.
Holding hands in public is generally an acceptable way to show friendship, and it’s not uncommon to see friends of the same gender holding hands. While this may seem out of the ordinary to Western visitors, it’s perfectly natural in countries like China.
Also keep in mind that some of the common hand gestures used in the West have a different meaning in Asia. For example:
- In Thailand, the “thumbs up” that Westerners use as a sign of approval is similar to sticking out your tongue to taunt someone.
- Beckoning someone with your index finger and palm up, as a way to say “come here,” is insulting in China and Japan – it’s the way you would call a dog or animal. If you must beckon someone with your hand, do it with your palm facing down.
- When you give a gift, do it with both hands. Likewise, receive gifts with both hands. This shows that you are attentive and sincere in offering and receiving the gift.
- Never cross your fingers as a sign of good luck or hope in Asia, since it’s considered an obscene gesture.
The feet and shoes are also sources of cultural misunderstandings in Asia and in the Middle East. Showing the soles of your feet is considered rude, so crossing your legs in a way that shows your sole is a bad idea. It’s also rude to wear your shoes indoors, especially when visiting your host’s home. If you see a line of shoes outside the door of a home, it’s best to remove your shoes before entering. Make the gesture to remove your shoes and allow your host to guide the ultimate decision (make sure you wear socks without holes!)
Etiquette Around the Dinner Table
In Asia, as in just about every country you’ll visit, the locals appreciate your attempts to speak the language and adopt their customs. If you’re a pro at using chopsticks, you’ll fit right in. However, it’s acceptable to ask for a fork if you don’t know how to use them.
“When in China and trying to use chopsticks, make sure to never stick the chopsticks in your bowl of rice vertically,” advises Sher of SherSheGoes. “If you’re pausing mid-meal, chopsticks should always be placed on the table next to the plate much like you would a fork or spoon. The Chinese only stick chopsticks vertically in rice at funeral meals, to offer the food to their ancestors.”
Meals in China and Japan can be a loud, messy affair, so be prepared. “In Japan, it’s customary to slurp when eating noodle dishes like ramen or udon,” said JB Maca of WillFlyforFood.net. “In the West, this is considered rude, but in Japan, it’s a sign that you’re enjoying your meal. So when eating noodles in Japan, remember to slurp, and slurp loudly.”
In South Korea, it’s considered rude to pick up and eat your bowl of rice from your hands the way the Japanese or Chinese do. Generally, however, rice bowls in Korea are made out of metal, so they’ll be too hot to pick up. It is expected that you drink beer or soju with your peers, which locals consider to be the best way to build stronger friendships and business relationships.
“Always look down when you are eating with colleagues in South Korea,” said David James of Business Growth Digital Marketing. “If you make eye contact while you are eating, they will usually ask you why you are looking at them.”
Meals are all about eating in South Korea, and socializing is put on hold when the food arrives. It’s common to finish eating the meal within about five or ten minutes. Eating kimchi is also expected, which is an acquired taste if you’re not used to it.
If you’re visiting someone’s home in Asia, your host will serve you, and they may not even eat at all so that they can make sure you have enough. If invited to a home for a meal do not accidentally insult your host by bringing a dish or other food. This may be seen as a sign that you don’t believe they cannot provide enough food for the meal. Across Asia, picky eaters are frowned upon. Even if a dish is new or strange to you, politeness dictates that you eat it. It’s impolite to refuse food, especially when dining with friends or colleagues.
Fight for the Check in China
At the end of a meal in China, it’s common to “argue” a bit about who should pay the bill. Always offer, always expect your host to insist on paying and engage in a bit of back of forth of saying “no I’ll pay, I insist” several times. “If the host offers and you accept right away, there’s certainly nothing wrong about it,” says Sher of SherSheGoes. “But it’s just the Chinese way to politely fight over grabbing the check as a courtesy to the host.”
Giving Gifts Helps Build Relationships
“One piece of cultural etiquette I’ve found most helpful is the custom of giving gifts. It’s a huge mistake when your host gives you a gift and you have nothing to give in return!” said Josh Summers of Go West Ventures. “This is particularly true as an individual traveler who is invited into a local home, but I’ve found it helpful even in a business setting to be prepared with small gifts that can help to ‘give face’ to the host.”
Sometimes, the practice of gift giving can require you to walk a fine line. Of course, it’s always acceptable among friends and family. However, in a business setting, it can be more challenging. Many governments – especially in China – are regulating practices like giving gifts since it’s so closely related to bribery and corruption. “While gift-giving is still a significant part of business culture, you have to make it clear that you are not trying to buy influence with the person you are giving the gift to,” advises Abigail Kang of Garcha Hotels in Singapore. “For that reason, never give lavish gifts. A good bottle of wine or liquor is still acceptable and never goes out of style.”
If you give a gift in Japan, expect a gift in return, as reciprocity is considered polite. Kang has experienced this first hand: “I am still stuck in a cycle of gift-giving with someone in Japan that has gone on since last year.”
Business Meeting Do’s and Don’ts
Many cultural traditions from the West have made their way to Asia, especially in business settings. Handshaking is the norm now, whether you’re male or female. Even in Japan, where bowing remains the custom, it is sometimes followed with a handshake. Where you’re unsure of how to proceed, it’s always sensible to take the lead from your hosts.
Keep in mind, however, that Chinese people do not bow – Japanese people do. This important distinction will help you show your understanding of the distinct traditions among cultures in Asia. The depth of bows in Japan reflect the status of the person receiving the bow; the deeper the bow, the more important the person.
Business cards, and the way you give and receive them, are very important in Asia. Just like you would with a gift, they should be given and received with two hands. After you receive someone’s card, take a moment to read it carefully. Keep the card out and near you during the meeting. At the end of the meeting, make it a point to store the card in a safe place like a protective case to show your respect.
Punctuality is important across most of Asia, especially in China, South Korea, Japan. “If you’ve ever traveled by train in Japan, you’ll notice that if a train is even a minute off the expected time, people on the platform start getting very antsy,” said Abigail Kang. “Punctuality is extremely important as a show of respect for the other person’s schedule.”
One exception to this rule is in Indonesia, where the local saying is that everything operates on “jam karet,” or “rubber time.” Rubber time is the concept that schedules are flexible and meetings may be delayed. Just like visitors to other Asian countries should strive for punctuality, anyone going to Indonesia should expect a bit of rubber time.
Building Relationships Takes Time
When negotiating or discussing a plan, your Asian business partners typically will communicate more subtly than you may be used to in the United States or Europe. “You may not hear an outright ‘no.’ When in Japan, my clients and colleagues rarely say ‘no’ to anything,” said Derek McLane of Petplan. “Even if they disagree with me, they will say ‘maybe’ or ‘I don’t know’ to give me the opportunity to save face.” This can be a little unsettling to Westerners who are usually more direct in their answers.
Along the same lines, it’s important to avoid cutting straight to the chase when doing business in China. The Chinese do not like to dive into anything, especially with people that aren’t family or longtime friends. In Chinese, a commonly used word is “Guānxì,” which means “relationships.” If you may want to do business with someone but have no connections with them, so you might ask for help from a colleague or friend that does have Guānxì with this particular person. That’s the easy route.
The more challenging way to create Guānxì is by actually taking the time to create a relationship. “It could be over a 6-hour dinner that includes endless shots of Chinese rice wine while chain-smoking ridiculously priced packs of cigarettes with government officials,” said Monica Weintraub of New Life ESL.
All Asian Countries Are Not the Same
While there are some commonalities in the traditions and culture across Asia, there are also significant differences between countries and among different religious and ethnic groups within countries. One of the biggest mistakes many Westerners make is assuming that all Asian cultures are the same. They’re not – that would be like saying Germans and Italians are the same, or that someone born and bred in Texas has everything in common with someone who lived their whole life in New York City. This assumption is the source of many misunderstandings and unintended insults.
Even if you don’t know all the details about the culture you’re visiting, understanding that there is a difference between Asian cultures and the West – and trying your best to respect traditions – will go a long way toward a successful trip.