Travel etiquette 101: body language

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You step over someone’s legs in Nepal and don’t even realize you’ve committed a grave social taboo! Although most locals will excuse breaches in etiquette, wouldn’t you rather be informed? Read below for a list of etiquette tips, taken from our various guidebooks, to help you navigate different parts of the world.

1. In Asia, never touch any part of someone else's body with your foot, which is considered the 'lowest' part of the body. If you accidentally do this, apologize by touching your hand to the person's arm and then touching your own head. Don't point at objects or people with your feet, don't prop your feet on chairs or tables while sitting. – From the Lonely Planet Thailand travel guide (and other Asia guidebooks)

2. Also in Asia, refrain from touching people on the head or ruffling their hair. The head is spiritually the 'highest' part of the body. Don't sit on pillows meant as headrests, as it is a variant on this taboo. – From the Lonely planet China travel guide

3. Shaking hands was introduced to Fiji in the 19th century by way of Tonga, and quickly became the established custom. An affectionate handshake can be very long, and may even last throughout an entire conversation. – From the Lonely Planet South Pacific Phrasebook

4. In Nepal, it’s bad manners to step over someone's outstretched legs, so avoid doing that, and move your own legs when someone wants to pass. Also do not step over or sit on a monk’s cushions in or near a temple, even if no one is sitting on them.  Always walk around stupas and chortens (Tibetan-style stupas) in a clockwise direction. – From the Lonely Planet Nepal travel guide

5. In Japanese baths, called onsen, always wash first before entering the water. The water is considered fouled if someone does not do this, kind of like the American equivalent of peeing in a pool. Also, use a wash cloth to cover your private bits and pieces.  – From the Lonely Planet Japan travel guide. (Also see: Top 10 hot springs in Japan)

6. The people of Italy are emotionally demonstrative, so expect to see lots of cheek kissing among acquaintances, embraces between men who are good friends and lingering handshakes. Italian men may walk arm-in-arm, as may women. Pushing and shoving in busy places is not considered rude, so don't be offended by it. Try to hold your ground. The Italian body language vocabulary is is quite extensive, but the following six may prove useful when traveling:

Italian Body Language

Six examples of Italian body language with their matching translations

Related article: Fine tune your table manners

7. Shaking hands across a threshold is considered unlucky in Russia. An interesting feature of this is that some pizza delivery guys refuse to conduct a transaction across a threshold; you either have to go out to the hall or invite them just inside the door. – From the Lonely Planet Russia travel guide

8. In India it is possible to pay a tremendous compliment with body language alone. When somebody approaches a person with their tongue between their teeth and gathers the air around the person's head with their hands to draw it into their own personal space, it means they find the person either unbearably beautiful or extraordinarily intelligent. - From Lonely Planet's Indian English Language & Culture

9. Don't stick your index finger and middle finger up with the palm of your hand facing towards you in the UK... it's the equivalent of giving someone the finger. Tip: Don't order two beers in this fashion in UK bars. Doing it palm facing out is OK (i.e., the peace sign) - From a Lonely Planet staffer in the UK

10. Moroccan greetings can last up to 10 minutes. Shake with your right hand then touch your hand to your heart, to indicate that you're taking the meeting to heart. Good friends may tack on up to four air kisses, accompanied by a stream of well wishes: 'How are you? Everything's good with you? I hope your parents are well? Baraka (blessings) upon them!' – From Alison Bing, Lonely Planet Morocco author

Know of other body language dos and don'ts around the world? Mime them for us in the comments below.

[Image from the Lonely Planet Italian Phrasebook, copyright 2011]