Travel etiquette

This item appears on page 18 of the December 2021 issue.

ITN Contributing Editor Randy Keck asked to hear from readers on the topic of travel etiquette. ITN then took up the call, asking subscribers to each share a cultural insight or a lesson in etiquette that they were surprised to discover about a particular location, either during their pre-trip research or when they were there. Following are responses received.

The story is place-specific, the lesson much broader.

I was preparing to spend three months in Palestine in 2013 — a mostly Muslim, albeit not strict, land — and was chatting with a friend who had recently returned from there about what clothes to take.

She advised me to leave all my short-sleeved tops at home and to take blouses that covered my elbows. I knew the dress code would be “conservative” (no shorts or short skirts, etc.) but had not heard “cover your elbows” before then.

The lesson is to research what the locals wear and try to follow suit before traveling to an area. It not only shows respect for the people, it may help you blend in with the locals and be less of an “ugly” American!

Dee Poujade
Portland, OR



In September-November 2016, four of us were on an Asia trip that included India, Myanmar, Thailand, China and the United Arab Emirates. For the whole trip, my husband had been wearing a bright-green Kermit the Frog baseball cap so I wouldn’t lose him in crowds.

We were several days into our month in China when we began to notice people glancing at him, but we assumed it was because of the novelty of the bright-green hat and the fact that we were Westerners.

We had just finished visiting the Terracotta Warriors site in Xi’an when our female tour guide, who was on her second day with us, asked to speak with me. She then explained the cultural significance of my husband’s hat, saying that, in China, a man wears a green hat when his wife or girlfriend has cheated on him!

Of course, the hat was removed and stored for the rest of the trip. Why no other guide had said something prior to this, and why this guide waited so long, we’ll never know. Maybe they assumed it was true!

Glenda Garrison
Burke, VA



Thanks to many years of subscribing to ITN, my husband, Steve, and I have been lured to far-flung countries. Surely, we’ve committed some cultural faux pas en route. The most memorable ones took place in 2008 in Tuva, a republic in southern Siberia, Russia, just north of the Mongolian border, famous for throat singers.

Walking into and out of many yurts, we had to learn to never step on the threshold and never to turn our backs toward the family’s shrine inside. We learned quickly, after gentle reminders.

Another faux pas took place as we camped in the forest with some fellow travelers, a shaman and a teacher of throat singing. It was an amazing, wonderful experience except for the food.

After three consecutive breakfasts of leftover lukewarm lamb-and-chopped-entrails soup, my delight at being offered a hard-boiled egg was over the top. Asking if there might be some salt in the camp, a plastic bag was pointed out to me on the ground at my feet, under the camp table. The plain, sturdy, transparent bag contained about a pound of salt.

Carefully opening the rope-tied bag, I took out a tiny amount of salt and tied the bag closed. I then sprinkled the salt on my treasured egg, but when I brushed the few excess grains off on the ground, I was quickly and rather loudly reprimanded!*

Sylvia DeForest
Seattle, WA

*In many Central Asian countries and Slavic cultures, salt is a precious commodity.


In the summer of 2014, my husband and I visited St. Nicholas Church in Batumi, Georgia, as part of our Black Sea cruise. The women in our group had been told that pants were not acceptable in the church, so I was wearing a very modest outfit with a floor-length skirt.

While in the sanctuary, my hip began acting up and I needed to sit down. Soon after I sat on one of the benches, a local elderly lady approached and began to address me in a firm manner. After perceiving that I had no understanding of her language, she reached down and gently rearranged my legs, uncrossing them.*

Carol Probst
Bethel Park, PA

*ITN sent a copy of Ms. Probst’s letter to Bishop Saba of the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church in North America (55 Charles St., Ashley, PA 18706) and asked if crossing one’s legs in a Georgian Orthodox church is considered rude or inappropriate. The Bishop replied, “Regarding leg-crossing, the Georgian Orthodox Church doesn’t prohibit leg-crossing for anyone, even in the church areas. The scenario Ms. Probst faced is because some clergy and parishioners believe that leg-crossing is not appropriate in the church. However, it doesn’t have anything to do with Georgian Orthodox Christian teachings.”


Surely, most readers of ITN know how to use chopsticks, but the following pointers and rules of etiquette might help them become more adept and perhaps more polite.

First, children tend to hold chopsticks near the eating end for easier maneuverability. Holding chopsticks farther back is more adult, elegant and graceful.

When not using them, rest your chopsticks across your bowl (some bowls even have indentations for that purpose) or across your plate or, if there is one, on the chopstick holder. Do NOT stand the chopsticks up in a bowl, especially in a bowl of rice, as this resembles incense sticks lighted for the dead.

When dishes of food are shared and you’re expected to serve yourself from a communal dish, you can use your chopsticks to pick up a piece of food if you can do so without touching any sauce or other pieces. If you can’t avoid touching other food, turn your chopsticks upside down to serve yourself, then right your chopsticks before eating.

You usually hold chopsticks upside down to pick up a piece of meat or vegetable. For food with sauce, you would need a serving spoon, but these are not always forthcoming in homes or authentic restaurants. It is especially important to turn your chopsticks upside down when serving other people (an endearing gesture).

At fancy restaurants, you may find two pairs of chopsticks so that you can eat with one pair and serve with the other pair. This is often futile, however, since you will always forget to change chopsticks again after serving someone, and you end up eating with the serving pair.

Using chopsticks, you may pick up a piece of food, such as a dumpling or chicken part, and bite into it, dip it in sauce or add sauce to it and then take another bite. You do not need to put the whole thing in your mouth in one piece.

You don’t need to ask for a knife. Use your chopsticks with a spreading-apart motion of the two sticks to break up, say, a large piece of tofu or a soft Korean pancake. If there is a food item that is impossible to pick up, such as a hard crisp egg roll, you may puncture it with one chopstick and use the other chopstick to grip it while you bite into it.

For ramen or other noodle soups, use the chopstick-and-soupspoon method. Lift noodles onto the spoon, then eat from the spoon. You also may use chopsticks to put the noodles directly in your mouth and slurp. While loud slurping and belching are all right, they are not de rigueur.

You may place food in your rice bowl and eat from the bowl using your chopsticks to push food directly into your mouth if you like (my preferred method). Most people do this. However, at formal banquets, rice may not be served at all or may appear only at the end of the meal and only as a palate cleanser.

Of course, one sees both foreigners and natives eating any which way, and people are forgiving, but it’s nice not to have to be forgiven.

Kitty Chen Dean
New York, NY