“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Many people have heard this saying before and either have disagreed— or have never had a single negative word thrown at them. Since the majority of the audience reading this has probably already experienced the wraths of middle and high school, you should understand that sometimes your intent and the impact your words have are very different. And, to put it simply, sometimes words hurt.
The same logic applies when you’re abroad: Some words have different connotations and meanings in other countries, and can therefore be unintentionally offensive. What is considered rude in other countries may be different than what you're used to. Overcoming cross cultural communication barriers is part of the fun of traveling abroad. But, we still want you to choose your words wisely, especially if you’re about to become a global nomad.
So to help you out, we've collected seven potentially off-putting words to avoid abroad, in order to save yourself from committing a travel taboo. Here are common American gestures that can be offensive in other countries:
Important words to avoid while traveling abroad
“Foreign” is an acceptable word when used to describe policies, but referring to a person as “foreign” or a “foreigner” leaves a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. Think about it: would you like to be called foreign? Anyone called by that term is automatically labeled as “other” – someone that doesn’t belong. You wouldn’t want to be referred to as something that has such a negative connotation when all you’re trying to do is fit in with locals and break down cross cultural communication barriers.
Referring to “America” as a country might leave some people confused. North America, Central America and South America are all “Americas,” but which one is THE America? Obviously there is no single “America.” This has become the accepted way for citizens of the United States of America to refer to their country, but when travelers from the U.S. use it it comes off as incredibly ethnocentric. If you are referring to the United States as “America” while communicating with different cultures, the term “United States,” “the States,” or the “U.S.” might be less puzzling.
This is a big, fat travel taboo and definitely an oh-no-no. Saying that a country is “backwards” is never acceptable, even if that country’s lifestyle is the complete opposite of yours. Calling a country’s culture, lifestyle, or practices “weird” is also not okay. Unless you’re using that word to describe your friend who thinks drinking milk with their spaghetti is somehow delicious, and has an unhealthy obsession with oddly shaped balloon animals, then don’t use it to describe your host culture.
It’s okay to comment on the differences between countries and the cultural differences in communication, but calling a nation or a culture “backwards” implies that its customs are behind or beneath the customs of the country you compare it to. Innovation and progress are thought of as moving forward, so saying something is “backwards” generally isn’t seen as positive.
If you’re traveling in France, be careful about using the word “frog” during conversations unless you’re using it to describe the type of fried amphibious legs on your dinner plate (“I could’ve sworn cuisses de grenouille meant chocolate cake…”). Just as people from the United States are referred to negatively as “Yanks,” people from France are rudely referred to as “Frogs” by those few culturally insensitive travelers. One reason this offensive moniker was given to the French is because frog legs are a delicacy in their country. This is one of those words to avoid abroad, but shouldn’t be too hard to keep out of conversation.
“Jock” is a term that is sometimes considered an offensive word to Scots, so think twice before using it — and no, it isn’t used to describe their athleticism. Similar to “Frog” in France, “Jock” is a term people use when referring to Scots in a derogatory manner. Jock is the Scottish name for John, and it became a slang term used for Scottish sailors. The term became an offensive word during the war of succession with England when all Scots were referred to as Jocks. Today the word is offensive to some, but okay to use with others, so this should be one of those words to avoid abroad all together.
Be careful about using the word “cool” or “coolie” when in China, India, or other parts of Asia. The term Coolie was formerly used when referring to unskilled workers, or laborers, in these regions. Coolie is considered an ethnic slur, so to avoid common cultural misunderstandings, try not to say any version of “cool” if you’re studying abroad in an Asian country. This may be difficult especially since “cool” is thrown around and used to commonly in many other areas of the world, so maybe practice using a different word with the same meaning before you go abroad.
How about rad, awesome, or if you want a throwback, grooooovy? You could even make up your own word — specstravagant or amazetastic are totally valid!
“Gypsy” is an offensive word in many cultures, but the term should be avoided in the country it originated from: Romania. When Romanians began migrating from northern India to Europe, many Europeans thought they were outcasts from Egypt. They were called a variety of names, with the most popular being “gypsy.” Not all people from Romania are offended by this term, but you should be careful when using it all over the globe. In the same sense, saying that you were “gypped” is another one of those words to avoid abroad; however, in some countries in the world, a gypsy is considered a pick pocketer. But, it is still rooted in cultural insensitivity and is considered an ethnic slur, so skip the travel taboo and just keep this potentially offensive word out of any conversation.
Don't be THAT traveler 🙄
Remember—social norms in different countries vary, and it's up to as, as visitors, to respect those boundaries.
Part of the fun and struggle of traveling is communicating with different cultures and sometimes making a few uncomfortable mistakes. Be sure to refer to this offensive words list so you know what words to avoid abroad, but also make sure you thoroughly research the specific country/countries you will be traveling to. Each country has a set of offensive words or mannerisms, so it is important to educate yourself in order to avoid common cultural misunderstandings.
If you have to think twice about a word, it probably isn’t a good idea to say it in general.
What other travel taboos and words do you think should be avoided? Are there any words on this list that you think don’t belong? Tell us what you think below!