The world is a funny place, and before you get us wrong that is a grand thing! Just step out of your own back yard, and you are in a different realm; but step out into another country, and the sudden culture shock could leave your head spinning and slack jaw dragging the ground for days!
The great thing about the thousands of peoples around the globe, all with their own lives, religion, history, geography and languages, is that all this combined has created such an amazing array of colorful cultures and unique traditions that will keep the happy-go-lucky backpacker forever able to pick from the metaphysical box of chocolates and never get the same sample twice.
But with all these differences, it does lead to a lot of confusion, faux pas, misunderstandings and the occasional all out war! So, without further adieu, we present you with a few of the more common blunders made by travelers in the hope that you never have to see an angry mob running after you.
1. Greetings & Communication
Americans might greet with a handshake; however, there are other greetings out there of which you should be aware. For example, in Japan, people bow, and in Italy and some Slavic countries, people kiss cheeks … and then if you are a member of the Freemasons, well, that gets too complex for us to go into in this guide. Also, keep in mind that in Northern European countries like Denmark, greeting people with kisses is a bad idea. Instead, shaking hands with Danish women, men and even children is acceptable.
In parts of Northern Europe, a quick, firm handshake is the norm, but in parts of Southern Europe, Central and South America, a handshake is longer and warmer. Beware that in Turkey, a firm handshake is considered rude and aggressive, and in certain African countries, a limp handshake is normal. In Islamic countries, men should generally never shake the hands of women.
In the Czech Republic and parts of Germany, it is considered a lack of respect to not look each other in the eye when toasting with an alcoholic beverage … and not just the first toast, but EVERY single time you clink those glasses together! So, be prepared to know your new friends’ eye color quite well by the end of a long night out. In the United States and Canada, intermittent eye contact is extremely important in conveying interest and attention.
In many Middle Eastern cultures, intense eye contact between the same genders is often a symbol of trust and sincerity; however, between opposite genders, especially in Muslim cultures, anything more than BRIEF eye contact is considered inappropriate. Additionally, in Asian, African, and Latin American cultures, extended eye contact is considered a “challenge”. The Japanese tend to consider even brief eye contact uncomfortable. And, in some cultures, a woman should look down when talking to a man.
2. Personal Space
Where you may enjoy that bit of breathing room and having people at a distance, be aware that in countries like China, India and other locations or cities with larger populations, people will crowd you, touch you, grab you, etc. On the opposite side of the coin, coming in too close to people in Scandinavia or even the UK will make them uncomfortable and may be taken as I sign of aggression.
Did you know that in some sects of Judaism, the only woman that a man will touch in his lifetime is the woman he is married to? In Japan, Scandinavia and England, touching is less frequent. In Latino cultures, touching is encouraged. And in Thailand, NEVER touch a person’s head. This can be religiously offensive, as the head is considered the most sacred part of the body.
When you first set foot in Ethiopia or India, you may think you have entered a country open to homosexuality, but this is not necessarily the case, as it is common for men to hold hands, whilst in Asia, and even many Slavic countries, girls will constantly roam about with fingers interlocked.
Public displays of affection (PDA)
Sorry to say, but outside of the USA and Paris – the city of love, those sloppy, passionate, romance movie kisses in full view of others are reserved for wedding celebrations and not enjoyed on the street.
In some countries, you may even face jail time for displaying too much affection in public so be respectful and save those kisses for private.
3. Personal Hygiene
Some cultures don’t shave – their men’s faces (or woman’s legs or underarms). Some cultures never wear deodorant and others don’t bathe as frequently. You must be careful to make sure you do not offend anyone. And yes, sometimes odors that are quite odd to you might be very acceptable in another culture.
Blowing your nose & clearing your throat
Don’t be surprised to see people in Asia clearing the phlegm from their throat or nose in public places, but even then, keep your nasal noises to yourself as much as possible. Though you may see it happening doesn’t mean the average person likes it, especially around the dinner table.
In Japan, Korea and other parts of Asia, people will wear a mask in public if they are sick so as not to infect others. This will carry over to them traveling to other parts of the world as well. Air pollution masks will also be common in cities with higher pollution levels.
Using your right hand
In places such as India, Africa, and the Middle East, a lot of food is eaten by hand at a communal table with others. In this situation, everyone is taught to use the right hand, as the left is utilized for more personal ‘grooming’ after the toilet. This carries over into greeting one another when shaking hands. Just imagine how offensive it is to offer someone your ‘dirty’ hand when saying hello!
Toilets & sanitation
In the West, we enjoy the porcelain throne for our duties, but this is a modernity and unheard of outside of hotels for foreigners in many countries. Be prepared for the hole in the ground…. or even worse! This was the way of the past (and doctors claim it is much better for the human system anyway).
Don’t fret, though! Mid- to upper-range accommodation and restaurants will keep them as clean as any Western facility and will even stock them with toilet paper! Otherwise, you will learn quickly that the bucket of water with a scoop beside the pit is what that left hand and a bit of splashing are for.
Be sure to keep some tissues and hand sanitizer handy when you are planning on being out for the day.
Also realize that people are used to different ways of learning, and this will be extremely different around the world. Chinese potty training takes place in the streets, and the Czechs have no qualms when it comes to kids (or even adults for that matter) relieving themselves wherever they must, whenever they must.
Finally, be ready to pay to use the toilet at major sites or landmarks in many parts of the world. It is always wise to carry some small change with you specifically for this reason…. and some tissues and hand sanitizer, just in case.
Gestures mean different things to different people. In all seriousness, it is better to keep your gestures to yourself. If you want to give the finger to that guy that just cut you off in traffic, it might not have any effect at all if he/she is from a different culture. In fact, in some cultures, it’s used as a pointer.
The thumbs-up has all different meanings, too, and you should also be careful with the American “A-Okay” sign or putting your hands on your hips.
Thumbs and hand signals
In Western culture, a thumbs up can either be used as a sign of agreement or to get a lift whilst hitching, but in some places, like West Africa, it is viewed more as a vulgar taunt … just as the middle finger is used in other countries. Also, in Europe and other parts of the world, the sign that you wish to hitch is more of a shaking of the hand and index finger pointed downwards toward the road.
Getting someones attention
In Asia, when you want to wave the waiter over to your table, do so with your palm faced towards you, and in Ethiopia, you may be shocked at the way the locals treat servers as they would call a dog to heel, but try the same in Europe, then good luck on getting any service at all.
If you would like to learn more, we suggest this book – Rude Hand Gestures of the World: A Guide to Offending without Words.
5. How to Dress
Proper street attire
Ladies, those skimpy shorts and bikini top may work well on some beaches in Thailand or the south of France, but even a skirt that isn’t long enough to cover your calves in Aleppo, Syria will get you scorned by the more conservative women and may get you too much unwanted attention from certain men unused to seeing more flesh publicly.
Temples, churches, burial grounds and other religious sites can pose a problem depending on where you are. For men, when entering a Jewish synagogue or cemetery, it is customary to cover your head, even if you only have a baseball cap.
But the opposite goes in many Christian establishments, where the man should remove his hat. For women, many religious denominations prefer the hair to at least be covered with a scarf or shawl, and the Rastafarian faith won’t let you enter without a skirt.
We recommend packing a sarong whenever you travel. It has so many uses and works great for both guys and girls at religious sites.
Take your shoes off when visiting someone’s house or a place of worship
Outside of the Americas and the UK, just start taking off your shoes when entering someone’s home unless they tell you otherwise. While some Asian countries will consider it disrespectful to wear your shoes indoors, other cultures just don’t want to dirty up their freshly mopped floors.
This idea of respect goes for most religious sites and temples round the world, especially Muslim countries. Yes, this still applies even if you are embarrassed at the stench of your 3-week-old backpacker socks.
If you have an appointment or set a time to meet someone, set your watch to local time, as in some places this is very loose. In the Philippines, Mediterranean and South Pacific, expect people to be late as life moves a bit slower in the heat, but do not keep the Swiss or Germans waiting (they love their clocks and order, after all), and the Chinese will take offense if you do not respect them enough to be on time.
For many of us, and we here at Backpacker Travel agree wholeheartedly, the culinary arts of a country or region are more than enough reason to travel by themselves. The filling warmth of a Georgian khachapuri (cheese-filled bread), the fresh seafood at a Greek restaurant on the coast and the heart-stopping goodness of a fried Mars bar from a chippy in Scotland all remind us of that distant land, but not knowing what to eat and how can occasionally lead to a social blunder and have you ostracized in seconds (okay, maybe not that bad… but you will get funny looks).
Cutlery & hands
In the States, you wouldn’t think twice about grabbing a slice of pizza with your hands and chomping down, but in Europe, that slice of pizza pie is still held in regard, and a fork and knife are the norm.
In Ethiopia, almost every meal is accompanied with a flat, pancake-like bread (injera), which is then used to pick up every morsel of goodness on a communal plate in the middle of your group, and as we all know, forks and such are unheard of when it comes to Asian dishes. The fine art of the chopstick is paramount here!
Dining in India is another reason to keep that right hand clean, as meals are taken in the fingers as it is considered to bring a closer connection to the food you eat.
It may surprise you to hear that slurping a bowl of soup or noodles could be considered a politeness, but this is the case in Japan, and it shows that you have an appreciation for the meal (the equivalent of an “mmmmmmm”)
In the lands of plenty, so much food goes to waste each day as the portions outsize the stomaches. Many Americans wouldn’t think twice about leaving food on their plate at the end of a meal, but in areas where food is scarce or salaries are low, if you are invited to a dinner, plan on cleaning your plate so as not to offend all the hard work and costs that may have gone into welcoming you with all the warmth so many societies grant to guests.
On the opposite side of the coin, if you aren’t feeling sufficiently stuffed, don’t automatically reach for more or ask for seconds. You must remember that your host may have spent more than usual to accommodate you, so it is best to politely wait for them to offer first and take your cue from others at the table as to having extras or not.
There are thousands upon thousands of languages and dialects spread across our blue planet, so it goes without saying that people will also communicate in a variety of ways. Adjusting to the sounds around you can really help you feel more comfortable and at ease in a crowd.
Some areas, like the Middle East and Asia, seem to be having a constant shouting match with each other, but this is just normal conversation. The languages may seem harsh to Western ears at times, and these guttural sounds tend to be better annunciated at higher volume. This and the fact that many more populous countries just need to scream louder over the others to be heard.
No culture on earth can say more with the shake of a hand than the Italians! You may feel that you are getting the third degree by a distant cousin of an aggravated Roman legionnaire, but just as with volume, the next best way to grab someones’ attention or make your point clear is to add in a few choice movements, hand signals, and flailing arms.
9. Gender Differences
Ladies, you may have burned the bra in the ’70s and have been watching gender equality level out over the past few decades, but this has not been the norm on every continent. We don’t mean to say that women are forcefully locked in the house and chained to the stove cooking and raising babies, but there are many cultures and religious groups that adhere fairly strictly to past traditions and regulations.
10. Law & Order
Of top priority is to remember to respect and follow the laws in place wherever you go. Nothing ruins a trip like spending the entire holiday in a holding cell or being deported. Don’t make a visit to Amsterdam thinking you can buy a bag of souvenir weed to bring home and don’t go bad mouthing the leaders of many countries on their home turf or you could quickly find yourself in the clink!
Some areas of the world put their rulers on a pedestal, so don’t go looking to topple that thought. In Thailand, you will find yourself in trouble if you speak badly about the king, and do not make fun of Mohammed in the Middle East. You may not agree, but these are sacred figures to others.
Their general principle may be to protect and to serve, but, sadly, corruption has leaked into a few levels of the police force in some countries. For example, after the fall of communism, the newly freed states were in economic and political upheaval. This led to some bad apples in the bunch taking advantage of the situation.
It is also best to keep yourself from sticking out and drawing attention to the fact that you are traveling about with an expensive camera, mobile phone, and credit cards in places like some former Soviet bloc countries and in parts of Central America, as the lesser paid employees of the law may just see you as having more cash in your wallet than they make in a year and hope you make any misstep possible so as to assist you in parting with your travel funds.
If you do find yourself in this uncomfortable situation, be as reasonable as you can be with those accosting you, try to keep in a public area and then get to your embassy or consulate as soon as possible to explain the situation better.
Drinking in public
Even in destinations promoted as places to go for a party, this doesn’t mean the local authorities look kindly or less strictly upon open drunkenness and bad behavior.
11. Final Tips Before You Go
Find out when festivals, celebrations or religious events are on when planning your trip
A visit to the beautiful, historic city of Olomouc in the Czech Republic is amazing, but a trip to this same city when the Christmas stalls are up on the main square and crowds of locals are drinking hot wine, feasting on sausage, ice skating and listening to bands at the open air stage is a memory you won’t soon forget (unless you have too much homemade plum brandy, that is … then you may forget the entire night).
Don’t expect other places or people to be like what you are used to
This goes for everything from the food to accommodation and even the toilets. CNN will probably not be on the TV in your room, you will have to learn to shower with only a sink in the cramped toilet on the Trans-Siberian train for many days, you won’t get bacon in the Middle East (gasp!!!) … and you won’t know what is going on many times … but all this is fine! Soak it in … and you will come away with a lot more than you would have ever expected.
Take precautions, not only in the aspect of safety but mind your manners, how you speak, act and react. Walking into a temple or historical site with cameras blazing and voices raised may truly offend those around you. No matter if you agree or not, this is what the locals believe, and you are in their lands. Find out the simple things, and don’t be afraid to ask. You will be much more appreciated when throwing out a silly question than you would if you just assume it is “like it is at home”.
The Most Important Lesson – “Respect”
Just to reiterate, no matter your beliefs or views on how people live their lives, one thing to remember is that we should all show a sense of respect for all those that we are guests to, no matter what may seem bizarre or strange or even wrong to you. This will be the manner in which another was raised to believe throughout his or her entire life. You, too, would be upset if someone from another country came to you and attempted to adjust everything that you knew and believed in or began pointing at you and speaking of how odd and different you were.
Things will not be the same. When you travel, take a bit of time and read up on what is acceptable or not at your destination and take every precaution not to offend your hosts. In this way, we all learn to understand each other better, get along more and treat each other as equals. The point is that without this variety, we would all lose a lot of our own way of life, and the world itself would become so much more uninteresting and a lot less colorful.