As Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta once said, traveling "leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller."
If you spend a serious amount of time in another country, you'll collect plenty of great stories—along with a few new habits. After all, it's hard to experience a culture if you're not willing to dive in.
1. Brazil: Be prepared to hear a strange question, over and over again.
If you’ve ever spent an extended amount of time in Brazil, you’re probably familiar with the custom of people asking whether you wanted a shower.
According to pieces on Medium, Brazilian Gringo, and Wander Wisdom, hospitable Brazilians will often ask their guests whether they'd like a shower. Don't worry, they're not hinting about their guests' sub-optimal hygiene.
Cassius Gonçalves, writing over at Medium, suggests that the practice comes from the indigenous peoples of Brazil, who'd often shower twice daily (not too surprising, given the country's tropical climate). Modern Brazilians still take hygiene quite seriously, and hosts want their guests to be comfortable; naturally, hosts offer their showers while greeting friends and family.
2. Philippines (and some other countries): Don't point with your index finger. Instead...
In some cultures, pointing is rude—well, pointing with an index finger, anyway. In the Philippines and in many Latin American countries (including Nicaragua and Colombia), people get past this social faux pas by pointing with their lips.
This can lead to misunderstandings. American travelers sometimes think that locals are flirting, but the "lip purse" is completely innocent. It's also quite complex; the Filipina-American writer of the blog My Move to the Philippines notes that lip pursing can be "combined with a[n] eyebrow, head, and neck action, the execution of which all depends on the intention of the pointer."
If you're traveling to one of these countries, be prepared for the lip purse (and keep your pointer finger to yourself).
3. Italy: Be prepared to miss a lot of calls.
Ever play “Ding Dong Ditch”? If you lived a sheltered childhood, we'll try to explain: The players go to a person’s house, ring the doorbell, and run away before the door opens. (Yes, it's dumb.)
We bring it up because Italians have basically brought "Ding Dong Ditch" into the modern age with squillo. Italians call friends, let the phone ring a few times, then hang up.
Don't think Italians are messing with you; lo squillo isn't a prank. Catherine Edwards of The Local It, an Italian news site, notes that many Italians use the practice to avoid using up minutes on their cell phone plans. By calling and hanging up, you can alert your friends that you're outside their house, you're on the way, or you're just thinking of them—all without forking over more money to the phone company.
4. The Netherlands: Celebrate birthdays by congratulating...everyone.
When you really think about it, birthday celebrations are a pretty strange tradition. Why congratulate someone on simply living another year?
Well, in the Netherlands, you don't stop with the birthday boy or girl; you congratulate the entire family while settling in for an all-day party. Guests show up throughout the day, bringing presents to be opened immediately. Everyone sits in a big circle while the birthday person serves them food and drinks.
Oh, the birthday person buys their own cake and hosts the party, so the celebration can be quite expensive. Happy birthday! Enjoy the credit card debt!
5. Denmark: If you're 25 and single, watch out.
In the United States, people are getting married later and later. If you're 25 and you haven't tied the knot, don't worry; the average age of a first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men, so you've got plenty of time.
If you're living in Denmark, however, we've got some bad news. At some point on your 25th birthday, one of your friends is probably going to try to cover you with cinnamon.
According to The Telegraph, the tradition traces its roots to Danish spice salesmen, who were on the road so often that they were never able to settle down. These unfortunate souls were known as Pebersvends, which translates (roughly) to "Pepper Dudes."
If your friend hits a milestone birthday—25, 30, or whenever you feel like throwing some spices—you're free to load up on cinnamon and ambush the poor bachelor/bachelorette.
6. India: Before you go shopping, keep this in mind.
If you're traveling in India and you decide to pick up a few souvenirs, you'll probably pay a higher price than the locals (although the price might not seem too high to you, at least when compared to what you'd normally spend for a gift at home).
In India and many other countries, haggling is part of doing business, and to some people, it's the best part of shopping. That's why Indians often negotiate the price of everything from cab fare to restaurant bills.
If you're good at haggling, you can typically reduce the price of just about everything by 30-70 percent. However, you'll have to be fairly tenacious if you're obviously from a wealthy country.
7. Japan: Give lots of gifts, but keep this in mind.
In Japanese culture, gift-giving is fairly common. You might receive gifts when you come back from a long trip, when the seasons change, or when you get a new job. Basically, if something changes in your life, the gifts will start rolling in.
However, there's fairly strict etiquette surrounding the act of giving a gift. If you're the giver, you'll need to hide your gift until the last possible second. You're expected to be humble; don't brag about your gift or draw much attention to it. Don't give big, expensive gifts.
If you're the recipient, you'll need to gush a little. Act as though you weren't expecting a gift and repeatedly thank the gift-giver. Try to refuse the gift several times (don't worry, you'll still get it).
If you receive a thoughtful, personal gift, you should buy a "thank-you" gift (or o-kaeshi) with a value equivalent to half of the value of the original gift.
There's much more to it, particularly if you decide to wrap a gift, but those are the basics.
8. Spain: Catch up on your beauty sleep.
You've probably heard of the siesta, a break in the middle of the workday in which everybody takes a quick nap. Around 2 p.m., everything shuts down and the country takes a break. Not a bad concept, right?
The siesta likely started as a reasonable reaction to the intense midday heat of Spain's Mediterranean climate. Until recently, the break would last for a whopping two to three hours, but Spain might abolish the long siesta in order to limit the length of the workday.
9. Germany: Be prepared for some honesty.
Sure, the Germans have a reputation for being a bit harsh. That's because they generally avoid small talk and empty conversation. Ask a German person whether he likes a dish you prepared, and you'll likely get a direct response. If your pistachio pudding was too sweet, you'll hear about it.
However, while Germans can be blunt, they don't intend to be rude. In their culture, being excessively polite might seem superficial. If you're traveling in Germany, tone down your American mannerisms and present your opinions frankly (within reason, of course).
Oh, and if someone tells you that your shirt is ugly, don't take it personally.
10. Sierra Leone: Re-think your handshake.
In Sierra Leone, a handshake isn’t just a greeting. It's a sign of respect, and if you're meeting someone important, you'll need to practice the right one.
When you’re going to shake the hand of someone who’s of a high rank, you should make sure to hold your right arm with your left. This shows that the other person's hand is heavy (yes, apparently important people have really heavy extremities).
As a further sign of respect, some people will follow up the handshake by touching their hearts with their right hands.
Of course, there are dozens of other handshake customs around the world, so before traveling, be sure to research your destination's cultural greetings.
11. China (and other countries): Be ready to share meals.
For Westerners, the idea of sharing food seems somewhat odd. At a typical restaurant, you'll order what you like, and while you might give a close friend or family member a bite of your entree, you're certainly not going to share everything.
However, in China, Vietnam, and many other Asian countries, communal meals are the norm.
In China, for instance, you might pick foods off of a turntable (what we Westerners might call a "Lazy Susan"), but you'll only want to turn that table in one direction, lest you offend your fellow diners. And don't tip when you've finished, as the practice isn't appreciated in many cultures.
Because dining etiquette varies substantially from country to country, we recommend reading plenty of travel guides before your stomach starts grumbling.
12. Middle East, Sri Lanka, India, and (some of) Africa: We've got bad news for lefties.
In many cultures, lefties will need to learn to rely on their right hands. If you're accepting food, giving something to a friend, shaking hands, or interacting in just about any other way, you'll want to avoid using your left.
Why? In some countries, the left hand is used for, ahem, certain personal hygiene practices. People naturally see the left hand as "unclean," so they try not to use it.
Really, most countries have some sort of bias against left-handed people, so this isn't that unusual. Don't believe us? Go try to find left-handed power tools. We'll wait.