News and views on the latest health issues



Customs and traditions to be aware of

Publish date: 01/05/2014

Customs and traditions

One of the reasons many of us travel overseas is to meet people from other parts of the world and to experience different customs and cultures.

It can be helpful to familiarise yourself with the customs and traditions in the different countries you are planning to visit before you go. By being aware of local traditions you may avoid an awkward or embarrassing situation.

Before you go:

  • Buy a guide book that includes information on local customs, traditions and laws.
  • Obtain a phrase book and learn some simple greetings and phrases.

Listed below are some of the customs and traditions you may encounter when travelling abroad:

  • Remove your shoes before entering temples and mosques and remember to dress appropriately. For example, you need to cover your legs and shoulders when visiting monasteries and churches in Greece.
  • Take care to observe rules regarding alcohol, drugs and intimate relationships in Islamic countries. For example, public displays of affection such as kissing are forbidden in Dubai. Infringement of the laws may result in severe penalties.
  • If you are not given cutlery with which to eat your meal, only use your right hand to touch food and avoid passing anything to people with your left hand.

In most Asian countries:

  • It is an insult to point your feet at someone else.
  • The head is considered the most important part of the body and should never be touched by another person.
    People often greet each other by holding their hands together in a prayer position rather than shaking hands.
  • Leaving chopsticks upright in a rice bowl is bad luck.
  • It is customary not to eat everything put on your plate, as this indicates to your hosts that they haven't provided enough food.
  • In parts of the Middle East and some Asian countries it is considered very rude to cross your legs in public or bear the soles of your feet.
  • It is customary to tip for most services in many countries. For example, in New York $1 a drink for the barman, $1-2 for hotel porters and maids and 10-20% of the bill for waiters and taxi drivers. If you are unsure of what is expected ask a local.
  • A thumbs up sign is a huge insult in parts of the Middle East, West Africa and some South American countries.
  • If you nod your head at people in Greece, Turkey or Bulgaria, this actually means no and a shake of the head means yes.
  • If you wish to take photographs of people, always ask their permission first.


Although you may not feel comfortable haggling, it is a normal part of shopping in many parts of the Middle East or Asia so try to relax and take part with good humour.

Top tips when haggling or bargaining:

  • Don't show too much interest in the item you are interested in.
  • Offer half the starting price, then work upwards but don't haggle for too long as this can be seen as aggressive.
  • Once you have agreed a price do not go back on the deal.
Interactive guide

Be sun-safe this summer

Follow our tips to protect your skin from sun damage.

Sign up to our monthly Better Health newsletter to receive updates on our latest health and wellbeing updates.

Sign up to newsletter

Ask the expert

Got a question?
Our team of medical experts are ready to help.