Exploring a new destination and immersing yourself in the culture of its citizens is an immensely rewarding experience. But it can be even more rewarding if we, as travelers, take care to observe the customs and travel etiquette of the places we visit. In some countries, it’s okay to slurp your soup, whistle for a cab, or point with your index finger. In other countries, it’s not. You have to be mindful when you travel.
The locals are essentially hosting you in their home country. When we set off on our travels we can get so caught up in the excitement of things; that we can often forget that we are embarking on not only a trip of a lifetime but a complete culture shock.
Every country has different codes or etiquettes that you must know before going there. Sometimes travel etiquettes are very different from place to place. So, you should know which things you are allowed to do and which not. No matter where you are going, no matter if you are traveling for the first time or you are an expert traveler.
Here you will find some of the most important travel etiquettes to take into account when you travel abroad.
1. Learn About the Place You’re Going
Not every country has the same business culture, so it’s a good idea to brush up on the place you’ll be visiting. While there’s a lot to be said for ‘learning on the job’, it also pays to be prepared. Read up on the customs, history, and culture of your destination. The more you know about a country and its citizens, the smaller the odds are that you’ll overstep your bounds. Besides, it’s fun! You learn all sorts of interesting trivia in the process.
E.g. did you know many Russians refuse to shake hands over a threshold? They believe it leads to an argument. In Turkey, a firm handshake is considered rude. In China, you should greet the oldest people first, and bow slightly. Now, that’s a super interesting titbit to work into conversation with fellow travelers on the coach.
2. Learn Some of the Language & Lingo
It is well known that English is a worldwide language. But, in some countries, it is valued in a positive way the effort from the visitor for learning at least a few words in the local language. For example, you could learn how to say please, thank you, hi, or goodbye.
In Greece nodding your head is considered to be impolite. It’s better to say “yes” instead. In the Netherlands, it’s considered rude to shout a greeting. Each nation has its own preferences when it comes to language and greetings. It can be a good idea to read up a bit about basic language uses. Greeting a person in their native tongue is one of the most powerful introductions you can ever have. Even if you can only say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ in the language of the country you’re visiting, you already have an advantage.
We’re on the subject of greeting – make sure you know what kind of greeting is the norm in the place you’re visiting. Some nations shake hands, others kiss on the cheek, and some even don’t do physical contact at all and suffice with a respectful bow. Knowing your boundaries where this is concerned helps a lot.
3. Research Dining Etiquette
Have you ever eaten food from another country? There is a good chance that when you do, the food will not taste as you anticipate. Why? Because it is authentic. So, whether you have had this type of food before or this is your first chance at indulging yourself in the local culture, be respectful. Don’t complain about the taste of the food – or do something as vulgar as spitting it out or making a scene if you don’t like it.
In addition, learning about appropriate dining procedures is also important. Taking the time to learn about this before going can save you some frustration – and maybe even some embarrassment.
For example, when it comes to tipping, some countries tend to expect it. However, others find the practice a bit offensive. This is definitely one of those things you need to discover before you head out.
4. Wear Appropriate Dress
Yes, you’re on holiday and you’re allowed to wear whatever makes you feel comfortable. However, be cognizant of the fact that certain modes of dress are frowned upon in certain countries and places. For instance, you can’t go into a synagogue with bare shoulders and flip-flops. Nor can you walk into a shopping center in France in your pajamas. Make sure you keep it stylish, and when in doubt, cover up to the knees and elbows to be on the safe side.
Just as there are certain customs in the United States (think no shoes, no shirt, no service) there are certain ways of dressing – and not dressing – in other countries. Learning this before you even leave home not only shows your travel etiquette but can save you a lot of frustration while packing.
For example, some countries frown upon women showing too much skin. And, while you may not agree, it is a matter of respect to dress more modest than, perhaps, you normally would. Or, you may come across certain places that prefer you not to wear shoes. Be respectful and take them off.
5. Keep Controversial Opinions to Yourself
When it comes to travel etiquette, we can’t mention opinions and discussion points. Many countries throughout the world have complicated politics and difficult histories. If you have a controversial opinion about something like communism, the Holocaust, or a country’s president/ruling party, rather keep it to yourself. Or at least be mindful about the fact that the locals might be sensitive about specific topics, especially about politics and religion.
You may think you know what it is like to live in a particular location. Maybe you have over-done your research. Maybe your Great Grandpa used to reside here and told you stories. Or, maybe you just watch a lot of CNN.
Whatever your excuse, it is important to remember that just because you know a few things about a destination, it does not mean that you know what it is like to live there. The point? Don’t try talking – or debating – with locals about things you don’t truly understand. Whether it is political, religious, lifestyle, or otherwise, just keep your opinions to yourself. You may find yourself in a bit of hot water if you don’t.
6. Forget The Thumbs-Up Sign In Turkey
Giving someone the thumbs up usually means everything is just great. However, if on holiday in Turkey, the same sign is considered extremely rude and is best avoided. Also, don’t form the round OK symbol with your thumb and forefinger as it’s regarded as an insulting gesture.
Be aware, too, that while a nod of the head downwards means yes, locals won’t shake their heads to indicate no – that’s a tilt upwards.
7. Only Bargain When Appropriate
Bargaining is practiced every day in markets around the world. In some places, it’s expected and part of the culture. However, when bargaining is done disrespectfully it becomes embarrassing for the seller. Bear this in mind when you try to bring down the price of a keepsake. Also, never try to bargain in a traditional brick-and-mortar store. Prices don’t have to be adapted for you just because you’re a tourist.
In many countries the citizens depend on the income they make from tourism, so rather pay full price if you’re unsure about whether bargaining is appropriate. Once again, knowledge is power.
There are ways to find out what a good price is to pay. Ask a local at the hotel you’re staying at or ask someone that knows the country/region what they would pay.
8. Learn the Laws (and Rules) – And Follow Them
Regardless of what you think, you are not invincible. Laws and rules are put in place for reasons. And, some of these reasons could be serious. So, when you are traveling and you come across signs or postings advising you to do or not do something, adhere to them.
Take time to learn an overview of the local laws, too, so that you are able to keep yourself – and others – out of harm’s way. Remember, breaking a law in another country does not always lead to an easy outcome. Something that comes with a minor consequence in the U.S. could be greatly punished elsewhere. Therefore, it is best to know before you go.
9. Never, Ever, Litter
There is not a single country in the world that does not frown upon littering. Stash your trash. Certain countries have public bins that are sorted according to the type of waste you can deposit. Read signs and adhere to the guidelines.
10. Be a Nice Human
In short – be the nicest version of yourself. Keep your local hosts and fellow travellers in mind at all times. No man is an island; our actions have consequences. Even if you do manage to breach an obscure code of conduct in a foreign country, a sincere apology normally does the trick. Go with the flow and learn as you go – it’s as simple as that.