15 Strange Habits I Developed Overseas

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15 Strange Habits I Developed Overseas

This post, 23 Strange Habits, is the inspiration behind today’s blog post. I have not lived in 23 countries but have certainly picked up some strange habits. Here are a few of the strange habits acquired after eleven years overseas, habits that are hard to shake and of which I am barely conscious.

  1. No shoes in the house. People in Minnesota tell me to make myself at home and leave my shoes on. I struggle. I want to take them off. In Djibouti there could be goat/camel/sheep poop on those shoes, or road kill juice, or simply a lot of dirt. A house without a pile of shoes at the front door is a lonely house.
  2. Kissy-face or tilted chin or tongue sticking out. Instead of using a ‘pointer’ finger, I use ‘pointer’ lips and ‘pointer’ tongue and ‘pointer’ chin.
  3. Cupping my hand to call someone. Waggling one finger is how you call a dog. I hold my hand out, palm down, and bring all four fingers toward the fleshy part of my palm. I watched a movie recently in which Liam Neeson called a military officer with his finger and I cringed. I thought the officer would attack him for being so disrespectful.
  4. Farmer-blowing in the street (only while running though!) and spitting. Gross. Sorry.
  5. Kissing cheeks and no hugs. I used to view the French-style cheek kisses as inherently sexual. Now I much prefer them to full-frontal hugs. Which is more invasive: Brushing cheeks together while making juicy smooching noises or full body contact and squeezing?
  6. Inhaling. I inhale often, and sharply. It means something like, uh-uh, or I’m listening. Lucy tells me to knock it off, apparently it is annoying.
  7. On-and-off showers. I turn off the water while shampooing, shaving, sudsing and then turn it back on to rinse. Off again. On again. This isn’t because of temperature issues exclusively. Showers are not designed to keep water in a certain space. A shower means the entire bathroom gets doused so to minimalize the pool-effect, I turn the water on and off.
  8. Insha Allah. When talking about the future I feel incomplete if I don’t add something like insha Allah. God willing. Hopefully. As far as I can tell. Maybe, maybe not.


    exchange money with a lady on the side of the street, not a bank or ATM

  9. Using the optative. May you be healthy! May God heal you! May you not hit that donkey cart! May you lower the price! Strangely, in Somali, this is sufficient. But when I use it in English, hand motions accompany the words, salute-like, and I feel like I’m sending the person I’m speaking to off into battle.
  10. Layers. The hotter it gets, the more clothes I wear. This is because sweat is ugly. So I wear one or two or three layers that soak up the sweat while the outer layer still looks fresh.
  11. No public displays of affection. Tom and I rarely hold hands and when we do, it is awkward and limp. We only recently started kissing in the airport upon arrival or departure and then a chaste peck on the cheek with a shoulder pat.
  12. Irregular toilet flushing. If its yellow, let it mellow. If its brown, flush it down. Sometimes flush toilet paper, sometimes put toilet paper in the garbage, sometimes hide toilet paper under the nearest rock. I promise not to do that while visiting your home. Unless you live in Africa, then you just never know.
  13. Sleeping in the middle of the day. Lovely.
  14. Bizarre exclamations and hand gestures. Ish! Hoh. Waryaa. Sow ma aha? Wiggling my earlobe or poking the side of my nose, all tacked onto the end of otherwise normal English sentences.
  15. Twirling conversations. Americans don’t tend to face each other while talking, but stand shoulder to shoulder. This feels strange and cold so I turn to face them, possibly step closer, may even make physical contact. They then rotate slightly, back away, and flinch. I respond again. All this is subconscious, but it inevitably means we turn in full circles while talking.

Have you noticed any of your own strange habits? Or any of mine that I didn’t mention?


  1. Tamie August 5, 2013 at 6:04 am - Reply

    Hehe, we went for a stroll holding hands the other evening and no one else was around – felt like a naughty teenager!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm - Reply

      Shame, shame! Doesn’t it feel strange after a long time of not doing it?

  2. Anna August 5, 2013 at 6:51 am - Reply

    Yes to so many of these – especially using the optative! I get stuck mid-sentence in English sometimes. “Congratulations on your new job! May you have success…” Uh. Just sounds weird. Great list!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 5, 2013 at 12:23 pm - Reply

      Glad its not just me wishing that ‘may you win your race!’ or whatever it is.

  3. Marit August 5, 2013 at 9:57 am - Reply

    So familiar! The pointing with the chin/lips has led to so much ridicule here that I have trained myself to stop it. And I do the inhaling as well, especially when I’m around Africans. Here it often leads to confusion, as people think that it means that I already know what they’re talking about, when to me it’s just a way of expressing the fact that I’m listening. (Here being the Netherlands, me being an ATCK having grown up in Norway,Uganda, Ethiopia,the US and Kenya).

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 5, 2013 at 12:24 pm - Reply

      I love how your upbringing is crossing cultures with you, although I suppose the ridicule is hard to deal with. But it is also hard to drop things that have become so habitual.

  4. Dan Rudd August 5, 2013 at 11:46 am - Reply

    In Japan it is the bowing. You bow to everyone. I have bowed to the ATM.

  5. Sherri August 5, 2013 at 11:52 am - Reply

    #2 and #3 for SURE! Ethiopians also do a gasp to say yes. I tell my young students that they have to use formal language in school. No gasping, lips or eyebrows to answer me. HA! They must use words. #5 and hugs felt too personal when I was in the US. #8 is here but using God not w/ Allah. So not surprising we have much in common since I am ‘next door’.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 5, 2013 at 12:25 pm - Reply

      I’ve noticed that Ethiopians do the inhale even more than Djiboutians do.

  6. mamahousemouse August 5, 2013 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    Growing up in “the country” we NEVER took our shoes off – a little dirt never hurt anybody, and my mom felt it was more neighborly to allow guests to keep their shoes on. Having moved MUCH farther into the cities, my habits changed sharply. In the country, I KNEW what might get tracked into the house. Now, I never know what it could be… and I find that the options scare me into losing my shoes at the door.

    Having only lived in a single US state, I’m not as aware of my own odd habits – but I’m told that “normal people” do not use their teeth to open everything from plastic bags to aluminum cans. Nor, apparently, is it “normal” to speak to kids with the same respect that I would give to an adult. *shrugs* These are the two I get pointed out to me the most often.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 5, 2013 at 6:50 pm - Reply

      People actually tell you that stuff about ‘normal’?! Well, I say keep on opening things with your teeth and speaking to children with respect.

  7. Jamie Jo August 5, 2013 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    What’s interesting to me is how many of these are common to Latin America, like the kissy-lip pointing and summoning people with your hand (not one finger). Maybe Americans are the backwards ones and not the rest of the world. Ha! Fun list.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 5, 2013 at 6:51 pm - Reply

      I like thinking about it that way – Americans being backwards. Great insight!

  8. Cyndi Logsdon August 5, 2013 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    #5 – um, YES! Thank you.

  9. Emily August 5, 2013 at 4:16 pm - Reply

    I still remember within the very few first hours Angela and I arrived in Djibouti, you spit on the floor inside a restaurant. Not saying it’s a habit, but remembering that surprising action of yours will always make giggle. 🙂

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 5, 2013 at 6:52 pm - Reply

      I do still think about that and can’t believe I did it! Was that also after I yelled at the men at the airport? Welcome to my world…

  10. Ilka Jones August 5, 2013 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    I’m German, and to me it was not so strange for some reason. But when my sister visited me here in the US, she thought it odd that in stores and such, people would say, “Excuse me” all the time when passing by. Sister, confused, “But she didn’t even so much as _brush_ against me with her coat!!” LOL
    Had an interesting experience taking DH back to Germany with me for the first time. Ahhhh… culture. 😉

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 5, 2013 at 6:54 pm - Reply

      I’ve noticed that too, with Americans. Always saying excuse me. Always saying please and thank you too, people here don’t say any of those things very often.

  11. Tanja August 5, 2013 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    Oh, I recognze a lot of these, especially the hand-calling of my kids to come hither (followed by them running in the opposite direction, of course!). When I lived in Mexico, I picked up on the “if God wants” (ojalá – comes from Insha Allah), but I honestly could not stomach saying it. I felt it added such a stress on God being in charge of me doing stuff, like, I would come to church if God willed it. I KNOW God wants me to be in church, so if I don’t go, it’s on me, not Him. I do respect the fact that other people use it, though. It is certainly a very common term around where I live in Africa now.

    I just realised another habit I picked up here in Africa. The one where you can ask kids and young people do do you favours and absolutely expect them to know they have to do them. Like sending a the neighbours’ boy to go buy bread for our breakfast, or asking a girl to go get a pair of shoes for some other kid who didn’t put theirs on. If an adult asks a kid for stuff like that around here, the kid does it. End of story. I’m guessing it is one of the ways that mothers here are actually able to get around to doing all their chores during the day, since they can ask for help from kids. But when I asked a 16 year old kid that was visiting from Latin America to pick up something today, it hit me really hard that he probably thought it was strange I do that.

  12. Brandi F August 5, 2013 at 9:23 pm - Reply

    I loved this article! I’ve never even traveled outside of the US but I was born and raised in SW Kansas. Talk about dirt everywhere! I never realized how much we have in common until I started reading your articles.

    I grew up doing the farmer blow. When you are in the middle of nowhere you don’t usually have a kleenex but with all the dirt blowing you need one. You wouldn’t wipe your nose on your sleeve because well that’s just gross! One trick you learn early is to calculate which way the wind is blowing!!!

    Toilets in the middle of nowhere are hard to find. So I think I could come to Africa for a visit…I’ve had my squatting technique down for years now!

    Thanks for writing this and giving us all a smile. May your day be full of unexpected blessings!

  13. Lewis August 6, 2013 at 12:46 am - Reply

    Good observations! Yes, we are rather strange creatures! LC

  14. Tim October 1, 2013 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    I still use my hand sideways (like a karate chop) to show the height of children and use the palm-down-cupped-fingers gesture for beckoning. I use two or more fingers to point or else make a general chin and lips gesture, depending on whom I’m with.

    • Livia July 17, 2016 at 11:41 pm - Reply

      N&cmsuo;eqpêrhe que ce faire potentiellement rejeter devant des centaines de milliers de spectateurs ça doit pas aider vraiment notre cas! Au niveau estime de soi comme au niveau regard des autres et plus spécialement des prospects suivants!… :S

  15. Amanda October 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    I point with my lips and show my agreement with my eyebrows. We are taking our first trip back to the states in just a few weeks. I’m curious to see how much I’ve changed in ways I can’t see right now.

  16. Woody Roland October 15, 2013 at 9:29 pm - Reply

    When I first moved to Latin America I was able to compartmentalize… live one way in Texas and another in Bolivia. However, over 35 years the cultural silos have irretrievably broken down. I now “kiss” women I know well in the States and stand far too close to people with whom I am conversing. I also touch men a great deal… which bothers Texan heterosexuals. In the car I have come to understand that many rules or laws are nice suggestions… this is helpful in Chicago, but legally challenging in Wisconsin or Minnesota.

  17. Emily Childers October 16, 2013 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    I spent some time in Israel / Palestine. Sometimes I still say ‘ah’ instead of responding ‘yes’ to a question or click my tongue to express ‘no’ instead of verbalizing it. I also feel weird putting my feet up in public and forget that I have to use the crosswalk or pay attention to parking signs.

    • Jessi October 17, 2013 at 5:00 am - Reply

      I grew up in Central Asia and have ALWAYS clicked my tongue for “no” but never knew anyone else from surrounding countries or similar cultures to do the same! Interesting that you picked it up in Israel as there was a large Israeli population where I grew up…Dont you love cultures? 🙂

      • Sarah June 23, 2014 at 4:27 pm - Reply

        That’s so interesting! In Cameroon, clicking the tongue (usually accompanied by nodding the head) indicates that you’re listening to what the person is saying. I find myself doing it in the US instead of saying “yeah” and “uh huh.”

  18. Lucy J November 5, 2013 at 7:26 pm - Reply

    Somehow i only just read this ( i think we were in the land next door of exceedingly slow and unreliable internet when you posted it) So funny. so true. no.11. glad its not just us!!!!

    Also handing over things in your right hand always is another big one… because at drive throughs in america they are on the left and it just feels so wrong to use left hand…so you twizzle around in your seat and try to hand card with right hand which i might have done..er…a couple of times…… or feeling like you’ve just been rude because you’ve used your left hand to pay, and then even though you know the cashier lady doesn’t care you feel like you did something ‘daring’ or ‘rebellious’…:-)

  19. […] Have you been changed by living abroad? For the better or the worse? Are you even aware of being changed or have others pointed things out to you? […]

  20. Jennifer January 8, 2014 at 2:35 am - Reply

    I’m loving this blog. Thank you :). I’ve lived/worked/learned overseas in several countries – Africa and Europe – and we are in the U.S. for a couple of months just now. This post especially has had me chuckling. Definitely do our current overseas-home’s form of “Insha Allah” as a little mumble under my breath right now – not sure if Mid-western Americans are ready for that habit of mine yet. Also definitely feel a stab of my conscience if I hand someone something with my left hand here… Love pointing with my chin and beckoning my daughters with what looks like an upside down American wave. Crossing cultures can be so fun 🙂

  21. Amanda January 8, 2014 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    This is awesome – and I can totally relate to so many of these as a missionary in Tanzania! Love it!

  22. Susan Dewey June 23, 2014 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Oh, my! I lived in Morocco for 7 years, and was virtually unable to communicate or buy things in teh States when I returned. Launching into a request without a preamble of pleasantries seemed unbearably rude. There are some of these, after 30 years “back” in the States, that I still do. The palm down ‘come here’ is one. I sub-vocalize ‘inshallah’ after each plan. In addition I can’t start a car trip without intoning ‘b’smillah’ (and my husband still asks what after 25 years!). And I still want to cover my face with my hands and squeak ‘wili-wili-wili’ when I’m startled or shocked. The hardest thing, though, is not walking with female friends with my fingers casually entwined with theirs — not really hand holding, but maintaining a physical contact. Thanks for the memories!

  23. Michelle June 23, 2014 at 2:44 pm - Reply

    The one I have had pointed out the most to me is that I say “sorry” a lot. It’s not because I’m apologizing, but because I am empathizing. I grew up in the middle East and have now lived in Africa for almost 14 years. In all those countries, there are terms used for showing empathy.. Ya haraam… pole sanna… desole’ .. oh shame… sorry o… In the US people always think I’m apologizing and tell me it’s not my fault… I never thought it was…

  24. Turner June 23, 2014 at 10:08 pm - Reply

    I still tend to bow upon meeting someone. Thank you Japan and Korea.

  25. Jessica June 23, 2014 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    YES! If I’m uncertain about something I generally find myself thinking “inshallah.” Also, I’ve somehow picked up the rather Nepali habit of nodding my head side to side instead of backward and forward as we do in America.

    So many strange habits… that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

  26. […] (Here is the original post: 15 Strange Habits I Developed Overseas) […]

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