If you've been staying at home, refraining from unnecessary travel this year, then first off, I'd like to thank you. As someone who traveled a lot pre-pandemic, both for fun and for work, I understand your wanderlust. Trust me, I do. But it goes without saying that the health and safety of others should be a priority in times like these, so I haven't left my hometown since March. But that doesn't mean I can't beat the quarantine blues with some virtual travel and, my favorite pastime, some research and planning.
So while we stay put, why not reminisce about past adventures and dream up new ones? If you already have post-pandemic trips all planned out in your mind, you have plenty of time to do some digging and create your perfect future itinerary. But have you ever given any thought to your destinations' customs and traditions?
*Leaving another friendly reminder here that you should try to adhere to local guidelines and refrain from unnecessary travel during this pandemic*
Visiting a new country is exhilarating. There are so many things you can learn from other cultures that you wouldn’t in your usual environment.
But different cultures come with different habits.
If you are new to a place, it is imperative to do some research on customs, mannerisms and traditions—especially if you find yourself integrated in a local household.
While some practice unique table manners, others enforce strict house rules. These are some of the things you should study up on before traveling abroad.
If you’re meeting someone on your trip, it may come naturally to you to greet them with a friendly wave. While in Greece, try to avoid any hand gestures with an open palm. This means no high-fives, no “stop” or “surrender” signs, no receiving an item with your palm exposed. Any of these things will be offensive to locals. “The Moutza”, as they call it, is the equivalent of flipping somebody off in other cultures.
A very similar trap is the beloved “thumbs up” gesture, instinctively used in many cultures as a sign of approval. In Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Turkey, as well as Russia, Sardinia, and parts of West Africa, it is an absolute no-no. The gesture is regarded as rude, insulting and downright obscene.
In India, a person’s left hand is considered unclean because of its intended use for personal hygiene. As a result, using this hand for anything else would be frowned upon. When you are eating with your hands, greeting someone with a handshake, or even pointing something out, make sure to use your right hand.
Speaking of shaking hands… If you’re entering someone’s house in Russia, don’t be too eager with your greeting gestures. It is considered bad luck to shake hands in a doorway. Legend holds that the “house spirit” lives in the building’s threshold, so it must not be crossed with a greeting. Instead, the person welcoming you should step outside, or first invite you into the room, where you can proceed to say hello with a formal handshake.
Nigeria and Senegal
When welcomed into a person’s house for the first time, complimenting your surroundings is often an instinctive reaction. If your goal is to flatter your host, steer away from this sort of pleasantry. In African and Middle Eastern countries, complimenting an item is another way of saying that you’d like to have it. This could make the host feel obligated to give it to you out of politeness, and result in an uncomfortable misunderstanding.
In many countries around the world, especially those in Europe, it is considered good taste to bring a bottle of your favorite wine to a dinner party. Ironically, this is not the case in France. The French really love their wine—which is why they will make sure to provide a top notch selection during dinner. By bringing your own bottle, you are essentially saying “Your wine sucks! I’d rather drink my own.” Not something a host likes to hear.
Oh, and if you venture out instead, don’t even think about asking to split the bill. Your request will be met with rolling eyes, and you’ll feel awkward when someone else decides to pay the check.
Egypt and Portugal
No one enjoys bland food. But if you are invited to a dinner in Egypt or Portugal, think twice before asking for the salt or pepper shaker. By requesting more seasoning, you are implying that the food is bland. Which may be true, but also very offensive to the one who prepared it. Just accept whatever comes your way and hope it’s not your host’s first time cooking.
In many places, it is considered impolite to eat with your hands. This can become tricky when the food is difficult to eat with a fork and knife.
Well, if you’re in México, worry not. Don’t feel the need to cut your taco to avoid making a mess. Tacos are meant to be eaten with your hands, as are many other Mexican dishes. Indulge in your messy taco the way you know you want to, or you’ll be looked at in a weird way.
On the contrary, Chilean people will find it incredibly rude if you eat anything with your hands. Yes, even fries. And burgers. Use cutlery for all of your meals and you can’t go wrong here.
When in China, ignore what you have been taught about politely finishing a meal with an empty plate. Instead, signalize that you are done by leaving a bit of food uneaten. If you don’t, your host will serve you seconds, or thirds (or however many plates you’ve already had…). By leaving an empty plate, you are asking for more, and the chef will feel obliged to refill it. They might also assume what you’re really saying is that they weren’t generous enough with your portion.
And if you want to be extra polite, make a mess and don’t shy away from slurping, smacking your lips and burping. In China, this is a sign of enjoyment and a compliment to the chef.
If you are invited to someone’s house in Japan, there are some things you should consider upon arrival. After being shown into the living room, don’t make yourself at home right away. Instead, the respectful thing to do is to remain standing until your host asks you to take a seat.
Once at the dinner table, in many cultures, it is a polite gesture to pour your seat neighbor’s drink, especially when filling up your own. Here’s where you can go wrong in Japan. Yes, you should refill someone else’s glass if you find it empty, but it would be wise not to fill up your—unless you want to come off as greedy. If people at the table are familiar with Japanese dinner etiquette, they will top off your drink in return.
Another thing to be aware of in Japan, as well as Korea, is the custom of tipping. For you, it may be a sign of appreciation in return for good service. For locals, it is an insult. Accepting a tip would be just as frowned upon as begging for money, and is therefore not a common practice.
You may find that being fed by someone, or feeding someone else, is a practice reserved for romantic relationships and those who can’t eat their meals on their own. But in some East African countries, like Ethiopia and Eritrea, the ceremony of “Gursha” is a huge sign of affection and friendship. Being fed by a stranger, or feeding another person with your hands, may be out of your comfort zone — but refusing to participate can be seen as rude.
Dinner get-togethers are always fun, but be aware of what you’re agreeing to, if you’re the one suggesting it. In Ghana, whoever brings up meeting for dinner or drinks, also pays. What is probably a casual idea for you, locals see as an invitation to be treated for a meal. So if you’re on a tight budget, be careful with such generous offers. People will find you incredibly rude if you don’t offer to grab the bill.
Bulgaria, México, France
“Flowers, how lovely!”, is what you’ll usually hear from those receiving them. But just to be sure that you’re sending the right message, do some research on what kind of flowers you should be gifting. While yellow flowers symbolize joy and sunshine in most Western cultures, they have an entirely different meaning in some parts of the world: In Bulgaria, they symbolize hatred. In France, the color yellow is a symbol of jealousy. If you give someone yellow flowers, they might read into it (which could lead to rather awkward situations!). In some parts of Central and South America, as well as México, it can get even more awkward. Here, yellow flowers symbolize death, and should only be gifted at funerals.
Some people are early to everything. Some arrive on the dot. Others prefer to show up fashionably late. If you are invited somewhere in Venezuela (unless it’s an official event), as a rule of thumb, get there around 15-20 minutes late. If your friend invites you over for lunch at 1PM, don’t bother showing up before 1:15PM. It’s almost guaranteed that they won’t be ready to welcome guests, and they’ll call you out for it.
United Arab Emirates
While drinking alcohol is a social norm in many countries, it is a serious matter in the United Arab Emirates. Although Muslims are subject to stricter laws than non-Muslims, tourists will also face criminal charges if caught drunk or drinking in public. If you want to play it safe, enjoy your glass of wine or favorite cocktail behind closed doors, or in a hotel.
Some toilets are simply not designed to flush toilet paper. Knowing this might save you from awkward bathroom situations in the following places. In Macedonia, Turkey, Greece, and many other European countries, flushing paper could lead to a clogging or flooding disaster. To avoid this, you will find a dedicated bin to dispose of your waste. In most cases, (hopefully) one that is closed. You will come across the same practice in other parts of the world like Mauritius, the Seychelles, Morocco and Egypt.