Customs and Manners: Looking at etiquette around the world

A version of this article was originally published in Fórsa Magazine

To tip or not to tip? Is it rude to make this gesture? When it comes to etiquette while travelling, it often involves you being aware of the silent, unspoken “rules” of the community and one country that takes pride in its rules is Japan. As you may know, earlier this year I travelled to Asia and while there were things that I knew I had to be mindful of, there were even more things that I discovered that I had to or not do. But it’s not just Japan where certain etiquette is part of daily life.

Here are a few things I’ve picked up that you can keep in mind while on your global travels.


I could write an essay on the list of things to watch out (in fact I’ve given a pretty in-depth list here) but two things that tourists will experience while they’re over there is their tipping system and their etiquette with regards to eating in public.

  1. Tipping is not done in Japan, in fact, some may see it as insulting as they believe that their top-class service should be enough. There have even been stories of foreigners who leave tips and the waiter has chased them down to give the change back.
  2. Don’t eat food while walking. When it comes to cleanliness, Japan is spotless. There are hardly any public bins and its residents are encouraged to bring home their rubbish. Part of the reason why it’s so clean is that people don’t eat while they’re walking. Sure, you may have picked up that delicious barbecue skewer from the local Seven Eleven, but it’s polite in Japan to stand to the side and eat it then and there rather than walk with it. While Japanese people won’t call you out on your mistakes (they don’t like confrontation), you may get frowns of disapproval enough to make you feel like you’ve embarrassed yourself!


  1. Don’t jaywalk. We love crossing the road randomly here in Ireland but as tempting as it is, in Germany, you can be fined for it. Even in rush hour, you will see people patiently waiting for the green man.
  2. Germans are renowned for their punctuality and while you’re there you should try your best to be on time, be it a meeting with friends or for a tour. Try to arrive a few minutes early or if you are going to be late, text or call to explain why. In fact, this rule should apply to every tour situation regardless of country, it’s very frustrating when people aren’t on time.


  1. If you’re a lover of coffee, drink your cappuccino or any milky form of coffee in the morning, and never after a meal. Also, the Italians absolutely cringe at the thought of people messing around with their coffee with things like “mint Frappuccinos”. Please note that it’s “espresso” not “expresso”!
  2. When you’re ready to leave a restaurant and want the bill, ask for “il conto per favore” (“the bill please”). Waiters don’t usually put it on your table unless you’ve requested it as it’s seen as encouraging people to leave.


  1. While visiting places of cultural significance like a temple, it is respectful to not show a lot of skin. Sometimes you may even be refused entry or scolded. Don’t wear shorts, make sure your knees are not in sight and cover your shoulders with something like a scarf. As a woman, it’s useful to have a light scarf with you anyway as sometimes you may be required to cover your hair. This rule comes into play with many countries in Asia like Indonesia and Vietnam.
  2. Though there are, of course, places to cater to foreigners, eating with your hands in India is commonplace so don’t be offended. If you do try it, use your right hand as the left hand is considered “unclean”. The sharing of food is also considered good Indian manners, and it is common for people to order several dishes and share them all between your party.


  1. If you’re trying to get someone’s attention don’t use your finger. Summoning someone with a curled index finger, as is done in the West, is only done by those in authority. Instead, extend your arm with the palm facing downwards and move your fingers in a scratching motion.
  2. For history buffs: The famous war in Vietnam is known to locals as the “American War” not the “Vietnam War” as it doesn’t make sense to call it so since it was arguably a civil war which was distinguished by American involvement.


  1. We may be familiar with using the “Ok” symbol using our thumb and index finger but in Brazil, it’s the equivalent of giving the middle finger to someone. It’s considered to be one of the rudest gestures you can make.
  2. They use a lot of physical contact as part of their communication so when talking with people don’t be shocked if Brazilians touch your arms, elbows or back when they’re being friendly. They also take the time to greet and say goodbye to each person present and are not overly concerned about being late.


  1. When eating cheese don’t expect to be given crackers. Cheese is eaten with bread most of the time. Don’t make a sandwich out of it or use giant chunks of bread either. Consider that the bread is just an accompaniment, but the cheese is the star.
  2. The French greet those who they know with a kiss on the cheek, one on either side. Sometimes the amount varies but it’s easier to just go with the flow and at least expect two. A pro-tip is if you’re wearing glasses, remove them before going for a kiss – it helps to avoid extra obstacles.


  1. Canadians who meet for the first time usually shake hands to introduce themselves and may shake hands while leaving too. Kissing on the cheek is usually reserved for the family however some French-Canadians partake in the practice as a friendly greeting.
  2. Many staff in Canada rely on tips and these are seldom included in the bill. It is customary in restaurants to tip around 15-20% on the total bill before tax, less for poor service, more for if the service was excellent. Some restaurants automatically charge the gratuity for larger groups. People also tip staff in hotels and taxi drivers. It is not necessary to tip for counter service, but tip jars often appear there. At the end of the day, it’s your choice.

Are there any customs you’re been made aware of on your travels? What has surprised you?


Hello! Úna-Minh is a journalist, social media consultant and virtual assistant who loves (you guessed it) TRAVEL. She also feels a bit strange writing in the third person so she'll stop that now. You can find out more about me and my Mammy in the about section of this blog!

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