Contrary to what you may think, I’m not immune to the odd travel faux pas here and there, despite my many years of practice. My bouts of foot-in-mouth disease may have decreased in the last few years yet try as I may, I’ll inevitably – albeit only occasionally – find myself doing or saying all the wrong things unintentionally.
There have been times when I’ve forgotten to take my shoes off when entering a home in a country which demands it, finished everything served on my plate, reached out to shake hands with a local man when it was deemed highly inappropriate and even that one time in Tajikistan, when I mistook someone’s family gathering for a restaurant and sat down and ordered coffee and kebabs. True story. Luckily for me, my immense mortification at the realization of my stuff-up was enough to appease my gracious hosts; the latter even insisting we stay and share in the family celebrations.
That was a particularly delicious mistake, on my part 😉
Travelling to a new country is always an exciting prospect yet along with a suitcase full of comfy clothes, hiking boots and a sunny disposition, it’s wise to pack a healthy dose of cultural awareness as well. Problem is, there are SO many habits which we simply take for granted that it’s difficult to know what is deemed rude or offensive abroad. Yet although there is an abundance of very specific customs pertaining to certain places – like refraining from blowing your nose in public when in China (highly repulsive to them) or taking your shoes off when entering homes in any Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist countries – there are a few general tricks which you can adopt to ensure you don’t accidently offend anyone, while travelling.
Because although everyone is bound to come across as a dumb tourist at one time or another, and more often than not be courteously forgiven, wouldn’t it be great to actually surprise a local, in a far-off foreign country, with a little cultural mindfulness?
Here are just some of the things I attempt to do when travelling.
(Disclaimer: I don’t always succeed!)
- Don’t ever criticize a country’s leader/government
No matter how many articles I’ve read that 90% of the population of country X hates its leader and criticizes him/her ad infinitum, I never EVER take it for granted that I can do the same. In some countries, criticizing the head of government can get one arrested and even executed, so keeping my tramp firmly shut on the topic not only helps me not offend, but also keeps me out of serious trouble. Besides, if there’s something that is quite international, it’s people’s annoyances at having their country/leader/laws criticized by outsiders.
- Learn WHO is the head of state and what political issues are current
Chris and I once came across a local Kyrgyz farmer who asked Chris if Adolf Hitler was still leading Germany. Super cute when it comes from a 90-year-old goat herder living in the middle of nowhere…not so cute when it comes from a 26-year-old globetrotter.
It is really quite important to learn the name of the head of state of whichever country you wish to visit and if there are any current ‘hot’ issues of which you should be aware. Updated knowledge is always appreciated. Learning a bit of the country’s history is never a waste of time and will also help you discern which topics should never be brought in conversation. As an example, Cambodians and Ugandans do not like to talk about their somewhat recent genocides and even a mention will be met with stark disapproval. If you want to get a deeper understanding of certain historical events you’ll have to do so subtly, without asking 101 questions to the first local you come across.
- Don’t talk politics or religion with locals (unless invited to do so)
Having said the above, do note that most of what I’ve learned about foreign countries, I’ve learnt from talking to locals. Politics, religion, historical or social issues; whatever the topic may be, I’ve enjoyed some incredibly interesting conversations with people abroad. The pivotal points are, however, that 1) I NEVER initiated the conversation and 2) I NEVER gave my opinion. You can indeed chat about sensitive subjects abroad, but you should wait until the topic is brought up by your host and then not divulge much of a personal opinion.
Which brings me to my next point…
- Perfect your diplomatic skills
No matter how curious you think you are about a foreign country and culture, you’ll be surprised to learn just how curious others are about you and your home-country. Most especially if you happen to visit a country which is not in the top 30 most-visited on earth. I’ve been asked countless personal questions through the years, from ‘Why do you not have any children?’ to ‘What religion do you follow?’ ‘How can you be away from your family for so long?’ and even ‘What do you think of our country?’ Nowadays, my answers are standardised although I do edit them ever so slightly depending on where I am. What my answers are, always, is diplomatic.
I try to refrain from telling locals I don’t like their country (sometimes, white lies are needed), never told anyone outside of the West that I have no religion affiliations (being ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ as such is rarely respected abroad) and I although I mostly answer “Because I can’t fit them in my motorcycle boxes” when asked about my lack of offspring, my most-oft answer is that “Oh we try but it has not happened yet”, especially in countries where child-bearing is so important. Telling a Nubian woman in a remote Sudanese village that I simply did not want children would have confused the heck out of her…so I told her it was obviously not god’s will. She did what anyone with a strong love of god and children would do: she gave me a sympathetic hug and then changed the subject. Bingo.
Perfecting your diplomatic skills will go a long way in ensuring you never offend or come across as critical of another’s culture.
- Dress conservatively
Much like excessive alcohol consumption, I’ve yet to come across a country whose inhabitants get offended if you overdress. This is especially true for women. If you want to play it safe (and avoid hassles for yourself anyway) my suggestion is to always cover your shoulders and wear long pants/skirts when crossing a country’s border, or visiting a new country for the first time. No matter what you’ve read. My usual rule of thumb is to cover myself when entering a country and then simply sit back and watch how locals are dressed. Even in a popular tourist destination like Koh Lanta (Thailand), usually filled with sundress & hot-pants wearing foreigners, I noticed how local women were very well covered, most of them even wearing a head-scarf. I never went to the extent of wearing a scarf, as I know the country is not Muslim, yet I realized there was a high percentage of locals who were Muslim in that region, so I always wore a long skirt and T-shirt whenever I stepped out of our guesthouse. Follow this credo and you’ll never be accused of disrespecting the local culture.
- Don’t break any local laws, no matter how ridiculous they seem to you
I’ve been in countries whose laws can be deemed to be utterly nonsensical…but I still don’t break them. This is despite the fact that many times even locals tell us their laws are not respected. Oh you can speed, the police will never stop you, go ahead and throw rubbish on the ground, no-one cares here. But the way I see it, not only is it not my place to challenge a country’s laws (if citizens want to revolt against a tyrannical government, for example, that’s for them to decide) but, perhaps more importantly, I’ve learnt through experience that leniency by a police force is hardly ever extended to foreign visitors. Everyone speeds in Italy, for example, yet the police are much more likely to stop a foreign plated vehicle, rather than a local one. Besides, if there’s ONE local you never want to piss off in a foreign country, it’s a local in uniform.
- Don’t be a drunken, rude idiot
This is one of those internationally acceptable customs that ought to be taken quite seriously. I’ve yet to come across a single place where it’s acceptable to be a drunken moron in public. Really. Absolutely no cultural differences here, it is as abominable a behaviour abroad as it is back home. Even in countries renowned for their huge levels of alcohol consumption (think any ex-Soviet Union nations) is obnoxious, inebriated behaviour deemed nice, either by locals or fellow travellers.
- Be demure
Sometimes, one need not be necessarily drunk to be obnoxious to locals in a foreign country. Anywhere in the East, for example, where cultures are much more demure than you may be used to, you’ll notice that locals never talk too loud, laugh too hard or gesticulate wildly. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve failed at this one. I blame my Italian heritage. Laughing with an open mouth is considered very impolite in Japan, as is talking loudly in public or on your mobile phone.
Yet being reserved and modest can translate into many aspects of behaviour. In some parts of the world (like Europe, North America, Australia and Canada) a firm handshake is an admirable characteristic whilst in most Asian countries it is deemed exceedingly aggressive. Knowing the right greeting is also quite imperative, most especially if you’re a woman. Unlike what many believe, Muslim men can and do shake hands with non-Muslim women (this has happened to me quite a lot) however I was never the one to outstretch the hand first. If offered, I have never refused.
The subject of personal space and touching also varies a great deal around the globe, yet generally speaking, I find the safest bet is to never touch anyone (on the arm, for example) unless a) they are fellow Latinos (I know they won’t take offence) or b) they have become close friends. I’m naturally very touchy feely and sometimes I have to hold back, especially when it comes to cute little kids. The Italian in me wants to pinch cheeks and give bear hugs, yet the traveller in me keeps tabs on local custom. Touching a child on the head in any Muslim or Buddhist country is about as offensive as you can get, even though it is one of the most appropriate behaviours in my home country.
- Hold back on the PDAs
I remember when Chris and I first reached Europe together back in 2010. We’d just spent a year and a half driving through the Middle East and for the first time ever, walking along a street in Bulgaria, we held hands. It was the first time we had that privilege in all the time we’d been together. The first time we shared a kiss in public. Many people will take this for granted, yet there are many, many countries all over the world where public displays of affection are frowned upon. And I’m not just talking about the Middle East. Even during our time together in Germany, for example, what soon became our normal way of showing affection to each other, was (very mildly) criticized. In other countries, it is simply considered unacceptable.
This is yet another case where the best way to ascertain how you should behave, is by observing locals’ behaviour. Do couples hold hands when walking? Do they sit on a park bench and smooch? If they do then go right ahead and behave as you’d normally do, although do note that sticking your tongue down your beloved’s throat in rather unsavoury no matter where you are. In countries like Dubai or Saudi Arabia, this kind of amorous display will get you lynched.
- Mind your hand gestures
I have the sneaking suspicion that I have failed abysmally at this task more times than I care to remember. When it comes to hand-gestures, it’s like I never left Italy back when I was 12: the only sure-fire way to shut me up is to tie my hands behind my back!
Anyway, this one if fraught with endless danger because the list of hand-gestures which are offensive in some countries yet perfectly fine in others, is almost never-ending! By and large, however, keep in mind that the ‘OK sign’ is fine in Anglo-Saxon countries whilst it’s insanely rude in Greece, Spain and Brazil and totally evil in any Arab nation. The ‘thumbs up’ is also seen as obscene in the Arab world and rather rude in South American and quite a few African countries. Giving someone ‘the outstretched hand’ is not exactly polite in our countries, where it basically tells the speaker to shut up but in Greece, the moutza is a serious offence. This hand gesture is also not very favourable in Pakistan or Korea either…
I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the wisest thing for me to do is to simply keep my hands to myself.
Now if I could only remember that when telling a story…
- Keep your feet to yourself too
While you’re at it, you may want to remember that in many countries the soles of the feet are considered the dirtiest and most vulgar part of one’s body. Therefore, pointing them in any way or having them out in full view when sitting on the ground is a big no-no. The easy thing to remember here is that this custom is reserved by countries with considerable populations of Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu followers.
- Learn the right table manners
When I was a kid, I loved nothing more than slurping my minestrone and burping after a meal. Unfortunately, in an Italian household, this pretty much guaranteed a not-so-subtle backhander from my mother. Turns out I should have been born Japanese! In Japan this behaviour is a way of extending the compliments to the chef for a delectable meal!!
Much like hand gestures, table manners can vary quite a bit around the world and considering the fact you’re bound to eat out in public every day when travelling, it pays to really do some homework on this one, about the specific country you intend to visit. If you think all there is to know is that you should sit up straight and don’t put your elbows on the table, you may be in for a rude shock. Of all the ‘cultural set of manners’ I researched, this would have to be by far the most contrasting.
Where in countries like Italy, India and the US it’s deemed rude to leave food on a plate, in many others like China and Japan it‘s rude to clean up your bowl, as it hints to your host that he/she has not cooked enough. Playing with utensils, whether forks or chopsticks, is frowned upon in every country (I fail at this many times) while asking for extra condiments which are not on the table (like salt and pepper) is considered rude in many countries and seen as a criticism of the cook’s skills. This last one is a particular sticking point in countries with tremendous food culture, like Italy and Argentina. Asking for parmesan cheese for a plate of seafood pasta in the former, or ketchup for a steak in the latter, is about as close to a gastronomic misdemeanour as one could get. Eat it as is or skip it!
- Don’t be so quick in accepting gifts…or dishing out compliments
This is one of those cultural customs which always drive me nuts! In countries like China and Japan, as well as many Muslim nations, gifts of any kind are to be rejected three times before being graciously accepted. I’ve forgotten this many a time!
“Here, have a box of candy”
“Oh great, thank you!”
“Oh no you shouldn’t have, oh no please, you keep it…” and on and on until at least three strikes are recorded. Moreover, in many cultures, it is customary to give away an object which has been admired by a guest. Say, a piece of jewellery or an item of clothing for example. Compliment the wearer and, if you’re in Morocco, you are literally forcing them to take said item off and give it to you. Praise something in many Muslim countries or any with immensely hospitable people (like Russia or Iran) and don’t be surprised if it will be offered as a gift to you when you leave.
This is why it is even more imperative to never compliment someone on how cute their child is. Just in case…
Having mentioned all this, I’d also like to stress that, when in Rome, I don’t always do as the Romans did. And it’s not always by mistake. Indeed, at times, I have very much gone against cultural norm in a country, if I deemed such norms to be immensely challenging to my own, personal moral code. We’ve travelled through countries where it’s perfectly acceptable to beat up your spouse, circumcise your child, stone your puppy to death or throw rubbish in the street. In these instances, I’ve preferred to refrain from following accepted convention, even if it meant offending a local. Yet I’ve never been verbally critical of any practice, no matter how hard I found it to keep my mouth shut. As stated before, my ‘job’ as a traveller is to observe, not to challenge a culture which is not my own.
Like everything else travel-related, it all comes down to common sense. It costs me absolutely nothing to be a bit more reserved, respectful and diplomatic when I travel. If anything, all these things help me be a better and more understanding human being. But I certainly do not blindly follow a foreign cultural practice if I think it may have the opposite effect.
Being respectful when travelling requires a very delicate balance of understanding and acceptance. I hope this post will help you, somewhat, in finding your own precious balance when travelling.
NB. Planning a trip abroad soon? Here is a very good website I found and, although I did not click on all countries, I did check out a dozen or so and from what I can tell, it’s pretty spot on.
Hope it helps! 🙂