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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.

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Allison Lounes

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

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Last Updated on January 3, 2020

The 10 Essential Habits of Positive People

The 10 Essential Habits of Positive People

Are you waiting for life events to turn out the way you want so that you can feel more positive about your life? Do you find yourself having pre-conditions to your sense of well-being, thinking that certain things must happen for you to be happier? Do you think there is no way that your life stresses can make you anything other than “stressed out” and that other people just don’t understand?  If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you might find yourself lingering in the land of negativity for too long!

The following are some tips to keep positive no matter what comes your way. This post will help you stop looking for what psychologists call “positivity” in all the wrong places!  Here are the ten essential habits of positive people.

1. Positive people don’t confuse quitting with letting go.

Instead of hanging on to ideas, beliefs, and even people that are no longer healthy for them, they trust their judgement to let go of negative forces in their lives.  Especially in terms of relationships, they subscribe to The Relationship Prayer which goes:

 I will grant myself the ability to trust the healthy people in my life … 

To set limits with, or let go of, the negative ones … 

And to have the wisdom to know the DIFFERENCE!

 2.  Positive people don’t just have a good day – they make a good day.

Waiting, hoping and wishing seldom have a place in the vocabulary of positive individuals. Rather, they use strong words that are pro-active and not reactive. Passivity leads to a lack of involvement, while positive people get very involved in constructing their lives. They work to make changes to feel better in tough times rather than wish their feelings away.

3. For the positive person, the past stays in the past.

Good and bad memories alike stay where they belong – in the past where they happened. They don’t spend much time pining for the good ol’ days because they are too busy making new memories now. The negative pulls from the past are used not for self-flagellation or unproductive regret, but rather productive regret where they use lessons learned as stepping stones towards a better future.

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4. Show me a positive person and I can show you a grateful person.

The most positive people are the most grateful people.  They do not focus on the potholes of their lives.  They focus on the pot of gold that awaits them every day, with new smells, sights, feelings and experiences.  They see life as a treasure chest full of wonder.

5. Rather than being stuck in their limitations, positive people are energized by their possibilities.

Optimistic people focus on what they can do, not what they can’t do.  They are not fooled to think that there is a perfect solution to every problem, and are confident that there are many solutions and possibilities.  They are not afraid to attempt new solutions to old problems, rather than spin their wheels expecting things to be different this time.  They refuse to be like Charlie Brown expecting that this time Lucy will not pull the football from him!

6. Positive people do not let their fears interfere with their lives!

Positive people have observed that those who are defined and pulled back by their fears never really truly live a full life. While proceeding with appropriate caution, they do not let fear keep them from trying new things. They realize that even failures are necessary steps for a successful life. They have confidence that they can get back up when they are knocked down by life events or their own mistakes, due to a strong belief in their personal resilience.

7. Positive people smile a lot!

When you feel positive on the inside it is like you are smiling from within, and these smiles are contagious. Furthermore, the more others are with positive people, the more they tend to smile too! They see the lightness in life, and have a sense of humor even when it is about themselves. Positive people have a high degree of self-respect, but refuse to take themselves too seriously!

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8. People who are positive are great communicators.

They realize that assertive, confident communication is the only way to connect with others in everyday life.  They avoid judgmental, angry interchanges, and do not let someone else’s blow up give them a reason to react in kind. Rather, they express themselves with tact and finesse.  They also refuse to be non-assertive and let people push them around. They refuse to own problems that belong to someone else.

9. Positive people realize that if you live long enough, there are times for great pain and sadness.

One of the most common misperceptions about positive people is that to be positive, you must always be happy. This can not be further from the truth. Anyone who has any depth at all is certainly not happy all the time.  Being sad, angry, disappointed are all essential emotions in life. How else would you ever develop empathy for others if you lived a life of denial and shallow emotions? Positive people do not run from the gamut of emotions, and accept that part of the healing process is to allow themselves to experience all types of feelings, not only the happy ones. A positive person always holds the hope that there is light at the end of the darkness.  

10. Positive person are empowered people – they refuse to blame others and are not victims in life.

Positive people seek the help and support of others who are supportive and safe.They limit interactions with those who are toxic in any manner, even if it comes to legal action and physical estrangement such as in the case of abuse. They have identified their own basic human rights, and they respect themselves too much to play the part of a victim. There is no place for holding grudges with a positive mindset. Forgiveness helps positive people become better, not bitter.

How about you?  How many habits of positive people do you personally find in yourself?  If you lack even a few of these 10 essential habits, you might find that the expected treasure at the end of the rainbow was not all that it was cracked up to be. How could it — if you keep on bringing a negative attitude around?

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I wish you well in keeping positive, because as we all know, there is certainly nothing positive about being negative!

Featured photo credit: Janaína Castelo Branco via flickr.com

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