If you’ve ever asked friends how their recent trip abroad was, only to be met with “Oh, the (Insert People Here) are SO RUDE,” you know that it’s easy to have your day ruined by a cultural misunderstanding when you’re abroad.If you’re paying thousands of dollars to travel somewhere, the last thing you want is to inadvertently make yourself miserable.
That’s why, whenever you’re traveling, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research before you go.
Here are six ways to avoid cultural misunderstandings when traveling abroad:
1 Learn a few words of the local language, including “Please,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “Excuse me.”
Even if you think you speak French comme une vache espagnole (like a Spanish cow), putting a bit of effort into saying a few words in the local language will go a long way, no matter where you go.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for tourists to assume that everyone speaks English, which isn’t always the case. While you may be staying in a tourist area, it’s unlikely that the hotel maid or the busboy can converse with you. Prefacing your request by asking if they speak English in the local language will help exponentially. If the staff does speak English, they don’t necessarily feel like they should *have* to—it’s their country, after all. Remember that their ability to speak English, even a bit, is a service that they’re providing to you to make your stay easier.
If you make an effort to use a few local words, and to ask natives if they speak English before blurting out something, and they’ll appreciate your efforts, be more polite, and give you better service.
2 Read those pages on culture at the beginning of your travel guide, and do online research to see if the are any faux pas to avoid.
In every country and culture around the world, there are certain gestures and expressions that should be avoided in polite company; you don’t want to accidentally offend anyone by committing a massive cultural faux pas.
Before you go abroad, read about the customs in the country you’re visiting, and take note of any specific gestures or sayings to avoid. In Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, for example, you should avoid touching food with your left hand, which is typically used for personal hygiene. In North Africa, you’ll want to ensure that you never show the soles of your shoes to friends.
In France, not making eye contact when clinking wine glasses for “cheers” is considered rude (and condemns you to seven years of bad sex!), as is crossing over or under the arms of two other people who are clinking glasses. Take note that in Europe, if you put your left hand on your lap while you’re eating rather than on the table, people will suspect you’re up to something.
By doing a bit of reading beforehand, you can appear open-minded and make a good impression to your hosts.
3 Try to respect and follow the advice that you read.
Even if you think a particular custom is ridiculous, sexist, racist, or worse, there are some situations where you should suck it up and follow it anyway. In some cases, the last thing you want to do is stand out like a foreigner.
If you’re going to a business meeting in China, for example, a woman will deeply offend her male Chinese colleagues if she gets on or off the elevator before them. And in many Middle Eastern countries, men and women don’t shake hands, even if they’re colleagues. If you’re trying to seal a business deal, though, these situations probably aren’t the right time to vehemently defend your feminist beliefs.
Similarly, out of respect for the locals, eat in private during the day if you’re visiting Malaysia during Ramadan, or expect to have a chat with police about what religion you are. Bring your marriage certificate if you want to rent a hotel room in Egypt, or get separate rooms if you’re not married. The hotel owner can face fines for allowing you to fraternize, and while you may think you have a “right” to do something, you won’t win any points by putting him in a difficult position.
Curse them out in your head, but smile and defer, and you’ll go a lot further towards making your stay a pleasant one with limited police encounters.
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4 Keep your voice down in public.
Having lived outside of the US for several years, now, I can attest that groups of Americans tend to be louder and more rowdy than groups of people from other countries. Abroad, it’s easy to hear them from afar.
Even if you don’t think you’re being loud, other cultures have different perceptions of an appropriate decibel level for a conversation, and you may find yourself being shushed by condescending locals while having a normal, indoor-voice conversation with friends.
Being sensitive to the amount of noise you make in public isn’t just about avoiding offending others—it’s also about not sticking out in a crowd.
A prevailing stereotype in much of the world (even in France) is that Americans are all rich, and if you’re a loud American who’s easy to spot, you can make yourself a target of theft without realizing it. Being aware of your surroundings and keeping in line with what locals are doing and how quietly they’re speaking in public places will help you avoid sticking out.
5 Smile and nod when appropriate, but not all the time.
Having lived abroad for several years, I’ve noticed that Americans are a very smiley bunch, but in many countries, where smiling is less common, it can be easily misinterpreted.
There’s a reason, for example, why Parisian women are considered cold.
Smile at a French man too easily, and he’ll think you’re flirting with him. To him, a smile from a beautiful woman is an invitation to hit on her.
Of course, there are some situations where smiling is appropriate and encouraged. Smile at your waiter—even a bit flirtatiously—and try to speak a few words in the local language, and he may offer you a complimentary apéritif or taste of something else on the menu. If you smile while walking down the street, however, you might as well be wearing a sign that says, “Try to sell me stuff or scam me”, and the flower vendors and beggars will come like flies to honey.
6 Pay the “tourist tax” with pleasure.
In some developing countries, the price for certain items can differ based on whether you’re a local or a tourist. That’s just a fact of life.
While it’s true that such a disparity is bad for the local economy—why would a Moroccan cab driver want to serve the locals when he can earn ten times as much driving around tourists?—it’s hard to avoid paying extra unless you’re traveling with someone who knows the terrain. When traveling to places where negotiating is the norm and prices aren’t fixed, be aware that you’re probably paying much more than a local person would pay for everything you buy.
Negotiate down, and don’t buy something if it’s clearly not worth it, but don’t make a fuss.
If you can afford to be traveling abroad, your trip probably costs more than the locals make in several years. So pay up.
The most important thing to remember while traveling abroad is to have some common sense. Making an effort to be nice to locals, to be respectful of the city you’re visiting, and to try out the local language will get you a long way, and you’ll contribute to making the world a better place where people all over have a positive impression of American tourists.
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