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6 Ways to Avoid Cultural Misunderstandings When Traveling Abroad

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6 Ways to Avoid Cultural Misunderstandings When Traveling Abroad

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

More by this author

Allison Lounes

Allison is the CEO & Founder at Paris Unraveled. She blogs about learning and studying.

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022

10 Cheap And Amazing Honeymoon Ideas

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10 Cheap And Amazing Honeymoon Ideas

A honeymoon is important.  The wedding is over.  The months, or even years, of stress and planning are finally over.  It’s time for the two of you to relax, settle in, and start enjoying your time together as you embark on your first journey as a family.

To make the most of this time for the least amount of money, it’s important to focus on what you want out of a honeymoon.  This isn’t your typical list of touristy honeymoon locations everyone goes to.  Rather, it’s a list of cheap honeymoon experiences a couple can enjoy together, regardless of where it’s at.

1. Camping

A week long camping trip is a fantastic way to see how you mesh together as a couple.  You’re put in a low impact “survival” situation where it’s just the 2 of you and nature.  You have a chance to see how your new spouse handles themselves when left with the basics of life.  There are amazing national parks all over the United States where you can camp for a week for $20-30, disconnect from technology, and enjoy some of the natural wonders our nation has to offer.

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2. Staycation

You don’t have to go anywhere for a honeymoon.  In fact, the tradition of taking a honeymoon vacation is a relatively new one.  Prior to the 19th century, a honeymoon involved staying home together for a month to get to know each other physically.  Think of how blissful it could be to take a full month off work, disconnect from the outside world, and focus entirely on projects together.  You may not be wowing your friends and family with pictures of some exotic location, but they’ll be envious of your escape from the rat race nonetheless.

3. Island Getaway

People tend to overspend on their honeymoon vacations to Hawaii, Tahiti, etc.  Going to these places doesn’t have to be expensive.  You don’t need to stay in a 5 star resort when you’re on a Best Western budget.  You’re there to be in the atmosphere of the island, not a hotel room. Book a cheap flight and sleep in a hotel alternative, on the beach or in your car.  It’s the view in paradise that really matters.

4. Fancy Resort

Book an expensive resort, spa, or retreat in the city you live in.  While this may seem counterintuitive as a cheap destination, when you consider your savings on airfare and other travel costs, you can afford to be treated like royalty within your own city limits.  If you book a honeymoon package, you’ll end up with a lot of free amenities and extra attention.  There’s no need to fly halfway across the world to live the good life.

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5. Road Trip

The journey is often more fulfilling than the actual destination.  If you fly out to some exotic locale, you’ll be stuck on a plane for 8-30 hours.  Rent a luxury car, pick a handful of places you each have always wanted to visit, and go on an adventure.  You can keep food costs down by packing your own snacks, but it’s always a good idea to sample the local delicacies wherever you go, even if it’s only a few states over.

6. Charter a Boat

If the ocean is your thing, a week-long cruise can cost you $1500-$3000 per person, depending on the destination.  You also have to factor in travel costs to and from the cruise, alcohol, souvenirs, and on-shore excursions.  You’ll also be surrounded by people.  For the same price (and often much cheaper), you can charter your own boat and enjoy the experience in private.

7. Las Vegas/Atlantic City

If gambling is your thing, these are the places to do it.  Which one you choose depends on your preference, budget, and proximity.  The way to make this vacation cheaper is to gamble smart.  Stay away from low odd tables (i.e craps, roulette) and read up on the MIT blackjack strategies to beat the house.  If you do it right, you can win enough for a free trip (and gain a valuable team skill in the process).

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8. Themed Retreats

There are weeklong retreats all over the world where you can fully immerse yourselves as a couple into a hobby you’re both passionate about.  Go on a yoga/meditation retreat, a ranch, a vineyard/farm, a backpacking adventure, treasure hunt, or whatever you’re into.

9. Working Honeymoon

Your honeymoon doesn’t have to be a vacation.  For a truly memorable experience, dedicate a week to a charity or volunteer organization.  You can drive out to a campground to help restore it in the offseason.  Maybe you’ve always wanted to volunteer to help out your local animal shelter, plant trees, help the homeless, etc.  Use the time to do something together as a couple that will fulfill you spiritually while contributing to the community.  Just because you’re on a honeymoon doesn’t mean you can’t be productive.

10. Festivals, Fairs & Special Events

Every city, state, and country has festivals, fairs, and special events.  Find one you’re interested in.  If you time your wedding right, your honeymoon can be a trip to one of these festivals.  Burning Man, SXSW, Bonnaroo, the Renaissance Fair, regional harvest festivals, Mardi Gras, New Years Eve in Times Square, a movie premiere, or whatever you’re into.  If you plan your honeymoon at the right time in the right place, the possibilities are endless.

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Featured photo credit: Josue Michel via unsplash.com

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