You can learn a lot from traveling. Visit a foreign country—and avoid the resorts and tourist traps—and you’ll be a happier, healthier, and more well-rounded person. There is, however, a right and wrong way to travel.
You are an ambassador from your country and it’s important to show that Americans respect local cultures.
You can’t simply grab your passport, jump on a plane, and hope for the best. To avoid embarrassing yourself (or your travel companions or even your hosts), you’ll want to learn about the local customs and habits of the people you’re visiting. After all, you’re a guest.
Even if you consider yourself fairly worldly, you can easily make a mistake. For instance, while visiting Australia in 1992, President George H. W. Bush greeted locals by holding up the “V for victory” symbol with his fingers—which shocked Australians. Down under, the “V” sign is roughly equivalent to the middle finger.
Needless to say, if you’re planning any sort of trip abroad, you need to do some research. We reached out to a few travel experts to find out what tourists could do differently (and what they shouldn’t do, period). For instance…
1. Do the work and avoid the problems.
Here’s the golden rule of traveling: Learn as much as you can.
Hali Panella, the (American) owner of Hali’s Boutique Italian Travel, stresses the importance of putting work into this type of research.
“It’s very important, especially for Americans, to familiarize themselves with the culture of a country before arriving there,” Panella says. “In some ways, you are an ambassador from your country and it’s important to show that Americans respect local cultures.”
How can you demonstrate your respect for another culture? For starters, take the time to learn a few phrases in the local language. Jessica Bisesto, senior editor of Travel Pirates, says that a little extra work can make a difference.
“It goes a long way to learn a few words of the language spoken in the country you’re in,” Bisesto tells FashionBeans. “The locals will appreciate your efforts.”
Of course, after you’ve learned how to say “¿dónde está la biblioteca?,” you’ll still need to learn about customs. Online resources can be extraordinarily helpful, and they’re cheaper than guidebooks.
“There are many tourist sites, blogs, where travelers share knowledge and some hacks,” Mariya Manoshenkova of travel site Kiwitaxi. “A more exciting (and funny way) is to meet with local residents via social networks or special sites.”
That might seem strange at first, but hey, that’s what “social media” is for, right?
2. Don’t make a mealtime mistake.
Eating is one of the best parts of traveling. However, given the variance in culinary customs, you’ll want to do some quick research before you book a restaurant reservation.
Food is the foundation of every culture, from how it’s procured to how it’s cooked.
To avoid any misunderstandings, you’ll want to know the type of food available, how to order, what type of service to expect, the time frame for a meal, and how to pay, and whether or not to tip. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll need to keep an open mind.
“Food is the foundation of every culture, from how it’s procured to how it’s cooked,” Panella tells us. “For example, there are restaurants in Tuscany that serve horse, which causes quite a stir with many Americans, but in reality, what makes that so different than pork or beef? Additionally, many cultures have a rich history of eating innards, and making faces about it is offensive to locals.”
When traveling from the U.S., it’s also important to realize other countries don’t move at the same pace as us when it comes to dining. Every country has its own rituals in regards to how long meals last and when they are eaten.
“In the USA, service is fast, almost rushy,” Panella says. “In Barcelona, they eat at 10:00 p.m. and won’t be prepared to serve at 6:30 p.m. In Tuscany, dinner takes at least two hours; it’s the event of the evening. These cultural differences shouldn’t be confused with bad service. Sometimes when travelers aren’t prepared for this, they make a big fuss and it’s a big faux pas.”
Cultural differences shouldn’t be confused with bad service.
You’ll also want to read about local table manners. For instance, in many Asian countries, rubbing your chopsticks together is seen as a rude gesture. Tipping is customary in the United States, but it’s unusual in Australia, China, Belgium, and in many other parts of the world. In France, you shouldn’t ask for butter with your bread, and if you order filet mignon, you’ll be served pork, not beef.
The locals will cut you some slack, so you shouldn’t be too worried about a misstep; however, a bit of research beforehand can save you some embarrassment.
3. Say “hello” like the locals.
Get to know the do’s and don’ts about meeting new people abroad. Some cultures have fairly strict greetings, with rules about who to touch, when, and for how long.
For instance, while some people may pat their friends on the head as a greeting, that’s an absolute no-no in Thailand. “They believe the human soul lives in that area, and it is not advisable to touch the hair. There, it is accepted to greet people by joining hands in a namaste gesture, which they call ‘wai,’ and bringing them close to the chin,” says Manoshenkova.
In France and Italy, it’s common practice to kiss someone on both cheeks as a greeting.
And don’t worry if you get the occasional raspberry in Tibet. In that region, Manoshenkova explains, showing the tongue “is a greeting which shows that the person is not possessed.”
4. Avoid a sartorial slip-up.
Wardrobe is a big part of culture. Unfortunately, some places are pretty touchy about how you dress—especially, we’re sorry to say, if you’re a woman.
Panella, Bisesto, and Manoshenkova each tell women to be careful with their outfits when traveling abroad. Not every country demands knee-length skirts and covered shoulders, though.
“In Arab countries, women are expected to dress very conservatively, whereas in places such as Brazil, nudity is almost considered the national sport,” says Bisesto.
This is why research is so important. You want to feel comfortable and safe during your travels. Worrying about whether or not your outfit (or lack thereof) is offending locals is just an unwelcome distraction.
5. The occasional mistake is probably inevitable.
Despite all your best efforts, you might walk right into an embarrassing gaffe. That’s understandable; how could you know that a thumbs-up is offensive in Iraq? Don’t panic; it’s how you recover that really matters. If you make eye contact or blow your nose and your host suddenly starts frowning at you, the most important thing is to admit your mistake.
Maybe the most common travel blunder is simply assuming that no one around you speaks English. You might think you can complain with impunity in a foreign land, but odds are, someone’s going to understand your words. Panella’s seen it happen lots of time.
“I have seen this lead to many faux pas because people will point out something that is strange to them, like an outfit or a food,” Panella says. “Or, they complain loudly in restaurants in English—and the people around them completely understand and get offended.”
When something like this happens, own up to it. Bisesto recommends that you “take responsibility for your actions and offer a genuine apology, then ask the person who was offended the proper way to address the situation that came about.” We can learn a lot from our mistakes, and this type of situation is no different. Panella also recommends a good, swift apology.
“Explain that you did not understand the situation because of the cultural difference,” she says.”Make light of it, if possible by making a joke!”
People will respect you more when you own up to your actions, and there’s usually no faster way to make new friends than by joking about a miscommunication.
6. Don’t forget to enjoy the trip.
While you’re juggling language barriers and cultural how-do-ya-dos, don’t forget that the purpose of travel is pleasure. The above tips will help you stay calm and comfortable as you interact with the wonderful people of the world—so remember to have fun. All three of our travel experts agree that you’ll have the best experience possible when you go into it prepared.
“Do your research and plan meticulously,” Panella says. “You will have a much better experience if you know what you’re getting yourself into and are familiar with the local culture and cuisines.”
Bisesto’s advice is similar. Approach travel with “an open mind and an earnest heart.” Follow these words of wisdom “and you’ll be surprised at the incredible experiences you’ll have,” she says.