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6 Ways to Avoid Cultural Misunderstandings When Traveling Abroad

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 July 10, 2020

How to Take Control of Your Life with Better Boundaries

How to Take Control of Your Life with Better Boundaries

We all have them—those hurtful, frustrating, offensive, manipulative people in our lives. No matter how hard we try to surround ourselves with positive and kind people, there will always be those who will disrespect, insult, berate, and misuse you if we allow them to.

We may, for a variety of reasons, not be able to avoid them, but we can determine how we interact with them and how we allow them to interact with us.

So, how to take control of your life and stop being pushed around?

Learning to set clear firm boundaries with the people in our lives at work and in our personal lives is the best way to protect ourselves from the negative effects of this kind of behavior.

What Boundaries Are (And What They’re Not)

Boundaries are limits

—they are not threats or ultimatums. Boundaries inform or teach. They are not a form of punishment.

Boundaries are firm lines—determined by you—which cannot be crossed by those around you. They are guidelines for how you will allow others to treat you and what kind of behaviors you will expect.

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Healthy personal boundaries help protect you from physical or emotional pain. You may also need to set firm boundaries at work to ensure you and your time are not disrespected. Don’t allow others to take advantage of your kindness and generosity.

Clear boundaries communicate to others that you demand respect and consideration—that you are willing to stand up for yourself and that you will not be a doormat for anyone. They are a “no trespassing” sign that makes it very clear when a line has been crossed and that there will be consequences for doing so.

Boundaries are not set with the intention of changing other people. They may change how people interact with you, but they are more about enforcing your needs than attempting to change the general behavior and attitude of others.

How to Establish Boundaries and Take Control of Your Life

Here are some ways that you can establish boundaries and take control of your life.

1. Self-Awareness Comes First

Before you can establish boundaries with others, you first need to understand what your needs are.

You are entitled to respect. You have the right to protect yourself from inappropriate or offensive behavior. Setting boundaries is a way of honoring your needs.

To set appropriate boundaries, you need to be clear about what healthy behaviors look like—what healthy relationships look like.

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You first have to become more aware of your feelings and honest with yourself about your expectations and what you feel is appropriate behavior:

  • Where do you need to establish better boundaries?
  • When do you feel disrespected?
  • When do you feel violated, frustrated, or angered by the behavior of others?
  • In what situations do you feel you are being mistreated or taken advantage of?
  • When do you want to be alone?
  • How much space do you need?

You need to honor your own needs and boundaries before you can expect others to honor them. This allows you to take control of your life.

2. Clear Communication Is Essential

Inform others clearly and directly what your expectations are. It is essential to have clear communication if you want others to respect your boundaries. Explain in an honest and respectful tone what you find offensive or unacceptable.

Many people simply aren’t aware that they are behaving inappropriately. They may never have been taught proper manners or consideration for others.

3. Be Specific but Don’t Blame

Taking a blaming or punishing attitude automatically puts people on the defensive. People will not listen when they feel attacked. It’s part of human nature.

That said, you do not need to overexplain or defend yourself. Boundaries are not open to compromise.

Sample language:

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  • “You may not…yell or raise your voice to me…”
  • “I need…to be treated with respect…”
  • “It’s not okay when…you take things from my desk without asking…”
  • “I won’t…do your work…cover for you anymore…”
  • “It’s not acceptable when…you ridicule or insult me…”
  • “I am uncomfortable when…you use offensive language”
  • “I will no longer be able to…lend you money…”

Being able to communicate these without sounding accusatory is essential if you want others to respect your boundaries so you can take control of your life.

4. Consequences Are Often Necessary

Determine what the appropriate consequences will be when boundaries are crossed. If it’s appropriate, be clear about those consequences upfront when communicating those boundaries to others.

Follow through. People won’t respect your boundaries if you don’t enforce them.

Standing our ground and forcing consequences doesn’t come easily to us. We want to be nice. We want people to like us, but we shouldn’t have to trade our self-respect to gain friends or to achieve success.

We may be tempted to let minor disrespect slide to avoid conflict, but as the familiar saying goes, “if you give people an inch, they’ll take a mile.”

It’s much easier to address offensive or inappropriate behavior now than to wait until that behavior has gotten completely out of hand.

It’s also important to remember that positive reinforcement is even more powerful than negative consequences. When people do alter the way they treat you, acknowledge it. Let people know that you notice and appreciate their efforts.

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Final Thoughts

Respect is always a valid reason for setting a boundary. Don’t defend yourself or your needs. Boundaries are often necessary to protect your time, your space, and your feelings. And these are essential if you want to take control of your life.

Start with the easiest boundaries first. Setting boundaries is a skill that needs to be practiced. Enlist support from others if necessary. Inform people immediately when they have crossed the line.

Don’t wait. Communicate politely and directly. Be clear about the consequences and follow them through.

The better you become at setting your own boundaries, the better you become at recognizing and respecting the boundaries of others.

Remember that establishing boundaries is your right. You are entitled to respect. You can’t control how other people behave, but you do have control over the way you allow people to treat you.

Learning to set boundaries is not always easy, but with time, it will become more comfortable. You may eventually find that boundaries become automatic and you no longer need to consciously set them.

They will simply become a natural extension of your self-respect.

Featured photo credit: Thomas Kelley via unsplash.com

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