Having the opportunity to come into contact with different cultures is often part of the reason why people travel in the first place. There are foreign languages to learn, fascinating cuisine combinations to try for the first time, and alien norms and values to abide by. However, these experiences come with their unfortunate faux pas and embarrassments as cultures clash on holiday. Check out this crash course in travel mistakes to make sure you aren’t making them next time you go for your summer break.
Foodie Faux Pas
There are often more unspoken rules about eating and drinking within cultures than any other aspect of everyday life. Hopefully these points should give you some food for thought.
- We Brits love a good coffee after our meals, but if you’re travelling to Italy, it’ll make you stick out like a sore thumb. Stick to a dessert after dinner instead. This is because some Italians believe that a late-day cappuccino upsets your stomach, and they take it for breakfast instead. If you’re in dire need of a coffee fix after 3pm, an espresso is considered to be acceptable.
- It’s actually quite offensive to turn down vodka in Russia. If it’s offered to you, it’s considered a sign of trust and friendship. Make sure you down it in one too, as sipping the drink is also thought to be rude.
- If you’re in an Asian country, pay careful attention to how you use your chopsticks. Never use them to point at something or leave them pointing upwards in your bowl in between mouthfuls, as this is considered to be extremely bad luck because the sticks resemble a part of Japanese funeral rites. They are not to be used to spear food, or left crossed over one another either.
- Eating with your left hand in India and parts of Africa and the Middle East is considered very disrespectful and “unclean” as that is the hand used to perform matters associated with going to the bathroom.
- Tipping in dining establishments is often something that requires thorough research. In the majority of America, leaving without tipping after a meal is equivalent to not paying at all and doing a runner. However, in Japan, tipping is considered very insulting as they believe that good service should be the standard. If you attempt to leave one, it may even be refused.
Body Language – Say it Right
You may find that some gestures that are completely well meaning and innocent in Britain, have entirely different connotations in other countries. Body language is heavily relied upon for indication of unspoken emotion and thought in every culture. You may find yourself resorting to hand gestures to try and communicate when there is a language barrier present, so make sure you don’t offend people when you do so.
- “Thumbs up” means good job, right? In most parts of South America, West Africa, and the Middle East, give someone the “thumbs up” gesture and you might as well have given them “the bird”.
- In the Middle East, India, and Africa, not only should the left hand never be used for eating, it’s also highly offensive to use it for anything in public, so make sure you use your right hand to pass things to people and shake their hand.
- In many cultures, and particularly in Japan, pointing with your finger is considered to be a very aggressive gesture, even when it is aimed at inanimate objects. This may be a hard one to keep under control as it is very common in Britain and America, but try using your whole hand to indicate instead.
- Beckoning with one finger to tell someone to “come here” is something most of us are very used to doing from a young age. But in Singapore, it’s a very sinister gesture that implies that “death is calling”. In the Philippines this gesture is reserved entirely for animals so attempting to summon a human with it is highly offensive.
- Many cultures consider crossing your legs to be rude. In the Middle East and South Africa, crossing your legs to show the sole of your foot is a sign of an ill wish upon the person it is pointed at. In Arab cultures it’s also highly insulting to show the sole of your foot to someone as it’s considered to be the most unclean and lowliest part of your body as it touches the ground. In Japan it is also considered disrespectful to cross your legs when in presence of someone older or with a higher ranking than yourself.
Avoid The Stereotype
Have you ever heard the song “Common People” by Pulp? It serves as a famous reminder that everyone hates a tourist. Wherever you’re travelling to, avoid being singled out as a tourist to avoid instant dislike, or worse, being taken advantage of.
- No one expects you to be fluent in the language, but make a little effort by learning a few basic words and key phrases. It will make a much better impression on the locals and they’ll likely appreciate you tried even if you get it wrong.
- Avoid squinting at your map in public. You’ll look clueless and vulnerable and single yourself out to be taken advantage of. Try downloading maps onto your phone instead.
- Don’t get in the way of locals. While you’re winding down on holiday and slowing your pace, bear in mind you’re still sharing the space of locals with busy lives to see to. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t obstruct the flow of daily life to take 100’s of holiday selfies. You should also avoid travelling during rush hours unless it’s absolutely necessary.
- Dress appropriately. In general, westerners tend to strip off in hot weather, while people who actually live in these warmer climates, cover themselves up. In hot countries such as Egypt, baring your flesh is akin to stamping “tourist” on your forehead in big, red letters.
- Haggle for your souvenirs. In many western countries, the prices on products are the prices you pay. However, in other parts of the world such as Thailand and India, you are expected to haggle for your purchases. If you take prices at face value, you’re betraying your tourist status and you may be exploited for it.
Are you guilty of any of the mistakes in this post? Travel smarter with these tips and you’ll never make another cultural faux pas.