7 Faux Pas International Students Make and How to Avoid Them

“Faux pas” is a term borrowed from French that literally means “false step.” A faux pas is an embarrassing or tactless act or remark in a social situation.

It is SO EASY to make awkward mistakes when living in a new culture. Here are a few faux pas that international students before you have made—so that you don’t have to!

“You’ve gotten fat!”

Ouch! Hearing that from my international student friend really stung. In some countries, making comments about someone’s appearance or weight is not a big deal, but Americans are very sensitive to what people say about how they look and especially their weight.

Never comment on an American’s weight or say anything negative about their appearance.

“I thought he was racist!”

A friend of mine from India told me a story about how he tried to feed an American friend from his hand, but the friend moved away from him and wouldn’t let him put the food in his mouth.

“I thought he wouldn’t eat from my hand because I was Indian. Later I found out Americans just don’t like people touching their food or feeding them!”

Don’t touch an American’s food with your hands. If you want to share food, put it on a plate. Don’t try to feed them, even with a fork or spoon.

“Oh, s***!”

My Lebanese friend, a very serious and religious woman, swore loudly on the basketball court.

“Wow, I’m surprised you use swear words,” I said.

“That’s a curse word??” She said, horrified.

It is very common for non-native English speakers to accidentally use vulgar words that they learn from media.

Have a conversation with a trusted native English speaker about what words are considered offensive.

Kiss, Kiss, Kiss

I enjoy greeting my international friends with three kisses on the cheek, but many Americans aren’t aware of this custom and feel awkward when someone leans in to kiss them. It can also make Americans uncomfortable if you hold their hand for an extended time or stand close to them when speaking.

When interacting with an American you don’t know very well, keep physical contact limited to a short handshake and try to stand about two feet away when talking to them.

“Oh please, take it.”

As an American, I have made the faux pas of accepting a “gift” from internationals who didn’t really intend to give it! In some cultures it is polite to offer items you own, and it is expected that the other person won’t accept it. Americans aren’t aware of this expectation, and if you offer something, they might take it!

Don’t offer something to an American if you don’t really want them to take it.

“Wait, you don’t sleep together?”

I laughed when an international student asked me this. She was shocked that my boyfriend and I were waiting until we were married to have sex! A lot of international students think that all Americans act like the characters they see on TV, and don’t understand that there is a wide variety of religious and moral convictions among Americans.

Never make assumptions about an American’s moral convictions.

“No thank you.”

Many international students turn down something an American offers “the first time” in order to be polite. But Americans don’t offer things a second or third time! If you turn it down the first time, they will think you really don’t want it.

If you wish to accept something an American is offering, take it the first time and say thank you to show your gratitude.


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