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Top 10 American Customs That May Be Offensive In Other Countries

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Liam Hillery Ummm, hey, hold up a second... You may not want to do that. Join as we count down our picks for the Top 10 American Customs That May Be Offensive in Other Countries. For this list, we’ll be looking at actions that are considered completely normal in American culture, but aren’t exactly welcomed in others due to different understandings and traditions. Special thanks to our user EmJay for submitting the idea on our Interactive Suggestion Tool at WatchMojo.comsuggest

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Script written by Liam Hillery

Top 10 American Customs That May Be Offensive In Other Countries

Ummm, hey, hold up a second... You may not want to do that. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 American Customs That May Be Offensive in Other Countries.

For this list, we’ll be looking at actions that are considered completely normal in American culture, but aren’t exactly welcomed in others due to different understandings and traditions.

#10: Wearing Shoes in the House

Our first entry actually makes a whole lot of sense. Honestly, Americans may be wise to take note. In many Asian and Caribbean cultures, you are expected to take your shoes off when entering a home for sanitary reasons. Think about it: when you’re outside, your shoes come into contact with endless amounts of dirt and germs. A study published in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology revealed that two-thirds of household dust comes from soil tracked or blown in from outside. Taking your shoes off at the door prevents health hazards, and when you have children playing on the carpets, you want to prevent some unwanted illness. So Americans, take em off, would ya?

#9: Altering Your Meal with Condiments

In the States, it’s not uncommon to drown our favorite foods in ketchup, mustard, mayo, vinegar, relish - whatever the heart desires. It’s almost expected. That’s not the case, however, in many places abroad. In countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Japan, treating food with condiments can be considered a major insult. In these countries, it’s understood that a meal is carefully prepared and designed to achieve a specific taste. Altering the meal is an insult to the chef, and essentially saying the meal is not good enough to be eaten on its own, and needs extra flavor just to be bearable. That’s probably not what Americans intend, but it’s the message received.

#8: Showing the Soles of Your Feet

Like our first entry, there’s a certain amount of logic behind this one that we totally get. That, and an understanding of symbolism. It all has to do with the fact that the sole of your foot is the lowest part of the human body and that it touches the dirty ground. In many Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Arab cultures, this means the foot symbolizes the lowest level of humanity and… well… dirt. So, if an American reveals the sole of their foot to another person, the message conveyed is that they think the other person is only worthy of, yes, dirt. That’s not exactly received as a compliment.

#7: Asking “What Do You Do?”

In American culture, asking someone about their job is totally normal. It’s one of those go-to conversation topics when you meet someone new and don’t have a lot to talk about. People typically use it to be polite, feigning an interest in the person across from them. The thing is, in many other countries, inquiring about someone’s job is not polite at all. In countries like the Netherlands, it’s actually considered fairly insulting because it implies you will treat a person differently based on their employment status. Particularly in countries with social welfare systems, it emphasizes a concern for class and social status, rather than the personal qualities and values that make a person unique.

#6: Blowing Your Nose In Public

For a few of these entries, you may be starting to notice a pattern pertaining to cleanliness. Totally understandable – cleanliness is related to health, and who wants to get sick? And when blowing your nose, you’re potentially spreading germs, and nobody wants that. But in countries like China, Japan, France, and some Middle Eastern countries, it’s as much about politeness as cleanliness. After all, blowing your nose is a form of spreading germs that a person can actually control. A sneeze is involuntary, but blowing one’s nose is a completely conscious choice. So for future reference, Americans, be sure to head to the bathroom.

#5: Finishing Off Your Plate

In America, polishing off your plate is a compliment: it means you thoroughly enjoyed your meal, and not doing so may send the message that you disliked your food. However, in countries like China, the Philippines, Thailand, and Russia, the exact opposite is true. Finishing your plate means that the host did not prepare enough food for you. While Americans probably hope to compliment their host by eating everything on their plate, they are actually implying the host did not provide enough in the first place. If you really want to make your host happy, leave a bite or two behind. Also, in an Arab country, don’t refuse food you are offered – that’s considered disrespectful.

#4: Laughing with Your Mouth Open

Alright, in Japan, this one proves to be offensive on two levels. First, like many on this list, it’s a little unsanitary. Laughing with your mouth open can spew germs into the air to infect all in the area, so yes, those in your vicinity may not be too thrilled. But there’s actually another reason why this custom is considered insulting: in Japan, the visual and auditory experience of open-mouthed laughter is compared to horses squealing. Women in Japan will usually cover their mouths when laughing in public places. It’s only polite to separate yourself from the animals.

#3: Using Your Left Hand for Anything

Okay, in America it doesn’t really matter whether you use your right hand or left to do anything. It’s not even a thought that crosses anyone’s mind, but in many Middle Eastern and African countries, the left hand carries special significance. Historically, the left was the hand used during sanitary procedures. Specifically, the left hand, with some water, is used in lieu of toilet paper. Because of this, presenting another person with the left hand is associating that person with the dirtiness of… well... you get the picture. As we’re sure all our viewers can understand, it’s offensive to be associated with that. Better to play it safe and use the right hand.

#2: Throwing a Thumbs Up

There are a lot of common hand signs out there that can be interpreted as vulgar elsewhere. You have the Peace Sign; The A-OK; Crossing your fingers… you may have to think about that one; but the most widely spread offensive hand sign is the thumbs up. For many countries in the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe, the thumbs-up sign is the equivalent of the American middle finger. You ALL know what that means. But here’s the thing, it’s a major problem for Americans because, in America, the thumbs up is probably the most positive sign you can give someone. Except for, of course, the double thumbs up. Sadly, that’s not the case abroad. BE WARNED AMERICANS. RESTRAIN YOURSELVES. NO THUMBS UP. You’ll thank us later.

Before we unveil out top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Eating in Places Where Food Is Not Served

Opening Presents Immediately

Touching Someone’s Head

Having Visible Tattoos

Not Declining Gifts

#1: Tipping

Of all the entries on this list, our number one pick is probably the most well-known. With that said, Americans continue to make this mistake, and it continues to be offensive. Tipping is such a difficult custom to navigate because NOT tipping holds such a stigma in the United States. In America, tipping is expected in restaurants, as waiters depend on them, and customers are chastised if they tip poorly. However, in countries like Japan and South Korea, tipping is actually frowned upon because it’s considered charity. In these countries, waiters take pride in their job, and are insulted by the added incentive to do a good job. Ultimately, it signals a lack of respect, so when you’re out to eat in certain Asian countries, it’s best that you don’t do this.

Do you agree with our list? What American custom do you think is the most offensive abroad? For more interesting Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to

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