Don’t “Wai” a Child! Customs and Etiquette in Different Countries

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

Traveling is more than checking famous landmarks off your list, sampling a few local dishes, and getting some great photos for Facebook and Instagram; it’s about experiencing a different culture, even just for a brief time. And part of experiencing a new country and culture is learning a little about its customs.

Not only is it fun to learn about these differences, but it’s often necessary—things like greetings, table manners, and gestures can be wildly different in other countries. You don’t want to embarrass yourself (or locals in the country you’re traveling in), and you definitely don’t want to be disrespectful.

So here are some customs to be aware of when it comes to greeting people, drinking alcohol, tipping, and even using chopsticks. Happy traveling!



In Thailand it’s common to perform the “wai” when greeting someone; the wai is a show of respect and is performed throughout Thailand. To do this greeting, press your palms together in prayer-like fashion and bow slightly.

When a Thai person does a wai to you, try to return the wai, or at the very least, acknowledge that you’ve seen them greet you. Only monks and royalty don’t need to return a wai (and you probably don’t fit into one of those categories). Who do you wai? As a foreigner, it’s hard to know, but to be safe, do a wai for those of higher social status than you or those older than you. Don’t wai children or those who are performing a service for you, such as waiters, shopkeepers, or taxi drivers.

Different countries might have different greetings and customs that expats should be aware of
CC Image Courtesy of bradhoc on Flickr

New Zealand

The Maori greet visitors by pressing their foreheads and noses together while closing their eyes; this gesture is called the hongi. Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge performed the hongi when greeting tribal elders in 2014.


The U.S.

Tipping culture in the US can be confusing to many travellers and expats
Tipping can be mentally taxing

The U.S. is known for its tipping culture. Many travelers are both confused and a bit annoyed when it comes to tipping. So who do you tip? And how much?

Waiters in the U.S. usually depend on tips to stay above the minimum wage; most waiters are paid under the minimum wage and tips are factored into workers’ wages. So, a 15–20% tip is standard. And even if you weren’t very happy with your service, a tip of at least 10% is still given. It’s rare for customers to not tip at all; if you do, don’t be surprised if you’re given a dirty look or even followed outside by the waiter asking what he or she did wrong!

In restaurants, tip 15–20%; tip about $1 per drink at a bar; for taxis, tip $1 for short rides and 15–20% to and from the airport; and tip $1 for every bag carried by hotel staff.


Different countries have different tipping culture, etiquettes, or ways of expressing gratitude
Japanese restaurant with teppanyaki hotplate

You won’t need to worry about tipping in Japan. In fact, it’s so uncommon that doing so will often lead to confusion. The server might think, “Did they accidentally overpay?” and may attempt to give the money back to you. Tipping may also be taken as an insult—the recipient may see it as an act of charity, a sign you pity him or her. If you really want to express your gratitude, you can place the money in an envelope, then give it to the server; or, give him or her a small gift instead of cash.


South Korea

Drinking is a huge part of Korean culture that expats might have to learn about

On average, South Koreans drink twice as much liquor as Russians, but it’s not just one big out-of-control booze-fest. In fact, the drinking culture in Korea is quite organized, one could say, and this structure has a lot to do with drinking customs and etiquette.

Korea’s drinking customs are heavily influenced by the importance of hierarchy in Korean culture. The person who holds a higher position at work, in school, or socially, or someone who is older—even a year older—is the senior or superior. If the senior is pouring (usually soju or other hard liquor), others at the table shouldn’t drink until someone has poured the senior a shot. Also, those younger or in a lower position than the senior should turn their body away from the senior when they take a sip.

Spain, France, and Germany

Drinking culture in Europe may have different and unique rules

If you’re toasting in France or Germany, you’d better make sure you look your drinking buddies in their eyes; if you don’t, the superstition says you’ll have seven years of “bad sex.” In Spain, you may suffer the same fate if you toast with water. No wonder those French, Spanish, and Germans seem to have such good eye contact…



There's even different rules and customs about using chopsticks in different countries

It’s considered very rude to stick your chopsticks upright in your rice—this is the way a bowl of rice is offered to an ancestor or someone who has recently died.

Do not cross your chopsticks on your plate, bowl, or the table. Moreover, don’t spear your food with a chopstick—chopsticks are always used together. Lastly, don’t pass food from chopstick to chopstick; when a person is cremated, their bones are passed from chopstick to chopstick as part of a Buddhist funeral ritual.


As in Japan, chopsticks should not be stuck upright in your food, especially your rice. Don’t wave your chopsticks in the air or play with them. Spearing your food with a chopstick is also frowned upon here. What’s more, try not to drop food from your chopsticks; to avoid this, ensure you’re gripping the food sufficiently with your chopsticks before bringing it to your mouth.

Of course, these customs are just a start. Make sure you do some research on customs and etiquette before you head to a new country. Not only is learning about the differences fun, but it could spare you some embarrassment and keep you from insulting locals!

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