8 Foreign Customs That Make No Sense to Americans

by SharonKurheg

People in different countries, as a whole, tend to do things their own way.

That mindset helps explain why Americans tend to crowd the airport gate, or why planes in some countries don’t have Row 14 or 17. And let’s not even get into how we all celebrate different holidays – especially what some may think of a holiday they’ve heard of but never celebrated…like Thanksgiving.

Save for Native Americans, all American citizens have ancestors who came from another country. They might have come here decades or even centuries ago. Or maybe they’re the ones who came here recently to get a fresh start. But whether a family arrived in the U.S. 4 months ago or 400 years ago, they each brought their own traditions with them. How much those ways of doing things stay with them and their families, especially from generation to generation, is a whole other story.

So even if a person’s heritage is from such-and-such a place, that country’s traditions might seem totally foreign to them. That place might even have customs that make no sense at all to Americans. Like these:

Eating with your left hand

About 10% of the population is left-handed. If that left-handed person is eating popcorn, they’re likely to eat it with their left hand.

In some countries, including India and much of the Middle East, the left hand is used to clean yourself after a bowel movement. Obviously, you wash your hands well when you’re done. But in those countries, eating with your left hand is considered very unsanitary.

Showing up fashionably late

a person using a smart watchIn the U.S., some people tend to be habitually early, and others tend to be habitually late. But it’s generally smiled upon if you’re on time.

In Venezuela, though, it’s customary to arrive at least 15 minutes later than scheduled. In fact, arriving on time is viewed as a social faux pas that borders on being impolite. It’s their cultural norm and even has a name: “la hora venezolana” or “Venezuelan time.”

What you name your baby

In the U.S., you can name your baby almost anything. There are no national laws about what you name your child; it’s left to the states.

However, in Germany, if your baby’s name of choice isn’t on the German registry of accepted names, you have to pay a fee and give a compelling reason for the Office of Vital Statistics to allow it.

Using a squat toilet

In the U.S., the vast majority of people use a Western-style toilet. But in much of Asia, including Iran, the norm is to use a squatting toilet.

Here’s a sneaky workaround for using a squat toilet.

Slurping your noodles

a man eating noodles with chopsticksIn the U.S., we’re taught to eat quietly. Don’t smack your lips, and certainly don’t slurp your noodles!

In Japan, slurping is much more common. In fact, it’s seen as a sign that you’re really enjoying what you’re eating.

Burping after a meal

Your meal in the U.S. is done and you KNOW you were taught not to burp, because it’s rude.

But in India? China? Taiwan? It’s the highest form of a compliment.

Removing your shoes at home

Removing your shoes at home is one of those things that has permeated the U.S., at least to an extent. But it’s still not the norm; most people wear their shoes inside their houses.

However, in most of Asia, the Middle East and northern African countries, removing one’s shoes before entering the home is the norm. In fact, it can be seen as a sign of disrespect for guests to enter a host’s home without leaving them at the door.

And in Malaysia, they’ll also leave their shoes outside their doctor’s office.

Shaking your head left/right when you mean “yes”

In the U.S., our non-verbal way of saying “yes” is to nod our heads up and down. “No” is done by shaking our head left and right.

In Bulgaria? You shake your head left and right when you’re saying “yes,” and up once if you mean “no.”

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GUWonder June 12, 2024 - 12:38 pm

In most Swedish homes, it’s customary to not wear shoes indoors if they have been used outdoors. Much like much of Asia.

Thomas June 12, 2024 - 4:54 pm

“In Germany, if your baby’s name of choice isn’t on the German registry of accepted names, you have to pay a fee and give a compelling reason.”

This is unfortunately wrong. Instead, like in many countries, there’s a rule in Germany that names that would violate the baby’s personal rights (say, “toilet”) aren’t allowed. In these exceptional cases, parents would need to bring an appraise to make the case—which (by nature) will cost them.

SharonKurheg June 12, 2024 - 4:58 pm

Thank-you for the clarification, friend!

GUWonder June 13, 2024 - 2:28 pm

In Sweden, all baby’s names are required to be filed with the government by a deadline within several months of the birth. The failure to do so results in a penalty of a fine. And the name is subject to government approval by the Swedish tax authorities and if the name is not on a list of approved first names and if the other names don’t fit Swedish administrative rules, the Swedish tax authorities will refuse to register the baby’s names and may decide to go after the custodial parents for failure to comply on time and with the Swedish name rules.

BK Rubin June 13, 2024 - 5:46 am

Making noise (slurping) noodles is not a way to show that you are enjoying your meal in Japan. Inhaling as you eat brings more air into your mouth and this enhances the flavour. Thus quiet slurping is acceptable and expected but deliberate loud slurping is considered rude.


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