I spent most of 2016 in Asia, mainly in Japan and Hong Kong. Even though I'm Asian, most people were able to tag me as a foreigner before I'd even uttered a word. Perplexed, I asked my friend, a local, why. "Well," she told me, "it's because of your body language. You're very American."
Very American, that is.
I was taken aback, but after applying some thought and a beer, I conceded we do have a number of gestures and postures that mark us as travelers. Many are universal and harmless. Others can make you look uncultured at best, or like a full-blown jackass at worst. So pay attention to these body language faux pas. You might just avoid unintentionally telling someone "up yours" in another country.
Hand gestures and their meanings vary
Those peace signs Asian tourists (and I admit, I as well) love doing? Totally cool. But flip that around, with the back of your hand facing the person, and you've essentially turned it into a middle-finger salute in places like the UK, Ireland, and Australia.
It's not just the hammy peace sign. A number of other hand gestures, innocuous in some Western countries, are hideously offensive in others. Pointing seems pretty natural and harmless, until you get to China, where it's a gesture meant for dogs. But then, Chinese people would point with their middle finger, not realizing what that means. And while we're still talking about miscommunicating in China, sticking your pinky out means that you are not happy with something (like a thumbs-down), though it's not that common.
If you're traveling in Asia and you want someone to come to you, don't beckon with just your index finger. With your arm in front of you, and your palm angled down and facing your body, motion back toward yourself with your whole hand.
And finally, the horn fingers might be something rockers throw at each other in the US of A, but in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Colombia, they tell someone that their wife is cheating on them. Talk about lost in translation.
Keep your hands out of your pockets
You think that resting your hands in your pockets seems like a chill thing to do, but in some Asian cultures, like Korea and Japan, you'd make people flip the hell out. It's a sign of arrogance and is plain rude.
Even nodding can trip you up
In some Eastern European countries like Bulgaria, nodding your head "yes" means "no," whereas shaking your head "no" means "yes." Yes, it's confusing, no?
Japan is particular about handing off gifts
This is especially important to remember if you're doing business. When you give your business card to someone, especially someone you've just met or who is older (or both), you must use both hands to present it. In Japan, they add a slight bow of the head. It's a sign of respect and standard business etiquette.
How long to hold someone's gaze
We've been taught that looking someone in the eyes makes you appear confident and respectful. However, to hold someone's eye contact in France can be seen as the equivalent of swiping right on Tinder. In other places, simply making eye contact can be a power move. In Brazil, for instance, workers such as waiters or nurses who want to show deference to someone's social standing may avoid eye contact altogether.
Asia is a bit of an odd duckling here. Normally, not staring so openly is a matter of politeness. But if you're very clearly a foreigner, you might get stared down so hard you'll feel like you're in the circus. In most cases, people don't mean anything by it; they're just curious.
Don't automatically offer to shake hands
If you're going anywhere, take a humble moment to learn how they say hello. It'll make your entry there far easier.
As an American, I'm used to shaking hands when I first meet someone, so this reflex struck in Japan when I was introduced to a friend of a friend. I stuck my hand out to shake her hand, but she chuckled and playfully chided me: "That's a very American thing to do." That's because in Japan, bowing is customary, and the deeper your bow, the more respectful it is.
An air kiss on each cheek (sometimes multiple times) is the standard greeting in many parts of Europe. Fijians might shake hands and then hold on for the entire duration of the first encounter (to pull away is rude). In Argentina, it's normal to hug and give a peck on the cheek. And in India, you put your palms together, as if to pray, tilt your head slightly, and say namaste.
When "talk to the hand" means something even ruder
You think it means "stop" or "you're not worth my time." But in several places -- Greece, Pakistan, and Nigeria, for instance -- it's considered aggressive, on par with saying, "I'm going to rub shit on your face."
Don't walk into homes in Asia with your shoes on
Your shoes have probably trampled over all sorts of crap (sometimes literally), so no one in Asia wants that gunk in their house. Plus, it's insulting and impolite. Likewise, don't prop your feet on chairs or any other furniture. In places like Japan, you remove your shoes at the door and slip into house slippers, but this custom isn't just for someone's house. You need to remove your shoes before going into some traditional shops, places with tatami (straw) mats, and shrines. By extension, showing someone the soles of your feet -- considered a filthy part of the body -- could offend any friends you make in Thailand.
Don't give just anyone a thumbs-up
A natural response to someone saying or doing something cool is a thumbs-up. But in some parts of the world, such as West Africa and the Middle East, you're saying "up yours." In Thailand, a thumbs-up is like sticking out your tongue. Obviously, neither is (probably) the message you want to convey, so the best rule of thumb here is to keep that fifth digit in check. Unless -- hey, this is up to you -- you need a quick way to convey that specific meaning, perhaps with a smile, and maybe even get away with it. You're just a tourist, after all, and probably don't even know what it means.
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