June 5, 2009

Cultural mistakes and stereotypes to avoid when travel

Just because French kiss on a cheek as a greeting and farewell, does not mean that Romanians do the same. Be careful as you attempt to enrich your cultural experience by posing as a culture -specifics–know-it-all traveler. Take a note of what’s applicable and even encouraged to do in a particular country or to relate to someone from a different country who is visiting your motherland.
This is a fact – we all have gotten at least one stereotype one way or another, whether it was about our culture, native tongue, culture, race, or motherland’s politics and economy. Here are a few cultural mistakes, in rates from a less-offensive to most-offensive.
Touching Someone

Countries: Russia, Korea, Thailand, China, Europe, the Middle East
Why and what’s offensive about it, and when touching is encouraged: In each country and culture there is a specific definition and understanding of personal space. While in Russia people tend to stand and talk closer to you, even when it’s between same genders, in other countries it’s considered to be rude. Making such a cultural mistake might result in offending a cultural aspect of that country. And in other countries, like Mediterranean countries, if you don’t touch someone’s arm when talking to them or if you don’t greet them with kisses or a warm embrace, you’ll be considered cold. However, if you are in Korea and not part of someone’s family or close friends’ pack, touching them will make them uncomfortable. In Thailand touching is even more sacred - the head is considered sacred, so never even pat a child on the head.

Instead, if you don’t know the level of comfort with the touching in the country you’re visiting, observe what locals are doing and follow suit. In Eastern countries remember that touching and public displays of affection are unacceptable. And in Muslim world, for example in places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, men and women are forbidden from interacting, let along touching.
Food Manners, or the Lack of It

Countries: India, Morocco, Africa, the Middle East
Why and what’s offensive about it, and when it’s is encouraged: Many cultures still prefer to eat using traditional methods — their hands. If you’ve been exposed to, let’s say, Ethiopian restaurants in USA, then you have experienced it already. If not, here is a tip – if you are in the country when food is offered communally – that is when quite a few people partake in consuming from a same bowl/plate, it is important to wash your hands before eating.

Moreover, observe the right-hand-is-for-eating and the left-hand-is-for-other-duties rule. If you eat with your left hand, expect your fellow diners to be mortified. And always stick to a portion in the bowl that’s closest to you. Do not thrust your hand into the center. Communal same plate eating does not mean you need to be all over the place, watch your manners and be courteous of the others.

If you are left-handed, as many Americans are, attempt to be equally skillful — even children who are left-handed in these cultures are taught to eat with their right hand — or at least explain yourself to your fellow diners before joining in communal food sharing.
Keeping Your Clothes On
Countries: Scandinavian countries, Turkey, Russia, Korea
Don’t we all wish that some of the places in America would have been more liberal and open to be a bit more risky? Especially when it comes to beaches. I’ve sun-bathed in many countries, including Greece, Italy, France, Croatia, Russia and Germany, and have seen tourists from other countries who freely going topless on a beach. Of course there should be a limit to who can ‘afford’ to be topless – ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’, famously sang in The Producers. I truly believe it.
Anyway, wearing bathing suits, shorts and T-shirts, underwear, or any other piece of clothing into a sauna, or other place of physical purification is not okay. In some cultures, a steam room or a sauna is considered a place of purity and reflection, where the outside world (i.e., your clothes) should be left outside. Same goes with the pooling, leave any cloths besides essential bathing suits, on the ground.

In some Scandinavian countries it’s common for entire families to sauna together in the nude. In Russia and Korea it’s less extreme – women and men bath separately, but in their separate sauna rooms they go completely naked, doesn’t matter the age. In these countries, women and men do not shy away from their same-gender friends, family and bystanders. That’s why don’t be surprised that even in USA you might see some European and Asian women go completely naked in saunas, as they do at home. This is part of their culture, and they can’t imagine any other way.

If you are still uncomfortable by the whole “nakedness” and “sharing” experience, sitting on a folded towel is considered acceptable. If you’re too modest to appear naked, strip down, but wrap yourself in a towel, but you might be the only one to do so, and might raise some questions on what you might be hiding in your towel – a tail, perhaps?
Speaking English to Bystanders
Countries: in most countries
“While in Rome, do as Romans do” applies to many cultural aspects. Same goes with the language use. If you are in Rome, attempt at least to say a few words and phrases in Italian. And while some countries more than the other have more people who speak your language, a.k.a. English, some other countries might not be as language-proficient. And might even get offended by being approached by a tourist/foreigner who right away tries to speak a foreign-to-them language.For example, not that French don’t speak English, and not that they don’t like English-speaking tourists, it’s just French folks do prefer one’s attempting to at least approach a French person in French language, not in English.
I suggest, try for your own cultural analysis and comparison to approach a Parisian in English, asking him/her whether they speak any English, etc. And then do the same in French, even if it’s broken French. This will tell you what’s more warmly accepted.
Try to speak some local language, even it’s very bad. Any attempt to speak an original language is greeted warmly in any of the countries. If the locals see you try, they will be more willing to respond and help you in English. Any guidebook offers key phrases in foreign local languages, so grab a book and do your best.
Getting Lei'd Off
Countries: only in Hawaii
Refusing or immediately removing a lei. Ever wondered why each time you watch a movie set in Hawaii or a Hawaiian character, everyone wears a lei. You first might think it’s a cultural stereotype that everyone just has to wear this flower necklace, but soon you learn it’s not the only reason.

Leis in the Hawaiian Islands aren’t just pretty floral necklaces that you get when you check into your hotel or show up at a luau. They’re a centuries-old cultural symbol of welcome, friendship, and appreciation.

Never refuse a lei — it’s considered highly disrespectful — or whip it off in the giver’s presence. If you’re allergic to the flowers, explain so, but offer to put it in some place of honor, say in the center of the table, or on a statue. Note that closed leis should be worn not hanging from the neck, but over the shoulder, with half draped down your chest and the other half down your back.

Looking Them in the Eye … or Not

Countries: Korea, Japan, Germany, Russia

While it’s encouraged in America, or some other countries, not to make direct eye contact in public places (that goes for people watching, especially), in other countries it’s almost a ‘requirement’ - not making direct eye contact can be considered rude, indifferent, or weak. However, there is always a limit of how long and with whom you can maintain a direct eye contact. In some Asian nations, prolonged eye contact will make a local uncomfortable, so don’t be offended if you’re negotiating a deal with someone who won’t look you straight in the eye.

There is always a ‘toasting drinks’ direct eye contact – in most countries, especially known for it’s love and culture celebrating life with wine and beer, like France, Italy and Germany, one should meet other people’s eyes when raising glasses – not eyeing the glass of wine.
Take or Refuse an Drink

Countries: Latin America, France, Korea, Russia
When you travel, often you happen, one way or another, sharing a drink with a local. Especially when it comes to such countries as Russia, Italy, Germany and France. Every culture has different traditions when it comes to drinking etiquette. Refusing to consumer a shot of Vodka in Russia is considered extremely rude, and offending to the host. It also means you don’t respect the people who want to share a drink with you. Moreover, when you are poured a drink, don’t lift your glass from the table, you can hold it, but keep it firm on the table until it’s filled. Then you can raise your glass and toast it. It’s considered bad manners otherwise.

In France, it’s all about wine. So, if you reached for a wine bottle to refill your own glass without offering more to the rest of the table, and you’ve made a faux pas. In Korea, women can pour only men’s drinks — not other women’s — and if you want a refill, you need to drain your glass. And if you’re in Latin America, never pour with your left hand — that’s bad luck.

Unless you are a club or lounge and a stranger is offering you a drink, try not to refuse communal drinking. You can control the portion. And it never hurts to ask someone out of the crowd you know the most about drinking traditions, especially for what’s offensive. If there is no one to ask around, just observe and follow the others.

Blowing Your Nose

Countries: Japan, China, Saudi Arabia, France

While it might be ok to blow your nose pretty much anywhere in USA, in such countries as Russia, for example, it’s rude to blow your nose in a restaurant (or any eating-related place.) This is just pure hygiene issue.

Some cultures find it disgusting to blow your nose in public — especially at the table. The Japanese and Chinese are also repelled by the idea of a handkerchief; Russians, on the other hand, carry a cloth handkerchief with them at all times. Often you’ll see an ‘grandma’ handkerchief even with a young Russian.

If traveling through Eastern and Asian countries leave the hankies at home and opt for disposable tissues instead. In France as well as in Eastern countries, if you’re dining and need to clear your nasal passages, excuse yourself and head to the restroom. And if you are sick as a dog, just cancel your trip to a food-eatery place altogether.

Talking Loud in Public Places
Countries: Russia, France
In some countries it is offensive to be loud in public places: talking, laughing, cheering, etc. This is not because these people don’t enjoy the communications and display of emotions, but because some places are meant for intimate moments when everyone can enjoy a quite moment, if they want to, or an intimate conversation that is not overwhelmed by someone’s obnoxious laughing at a next table. Places like public transportation, restaurants, theatres stores and libraries in Russia are considered to be places where each person is entitled to quite moment, and often, if someone is too loud, patrons of the places would give you a notice to be quitter. This is normal, and is not taken as an offense, or intrusion on private moment of emotional expression.Also avoid conversations in places a country might consider sacred or reflective—churches in Europe, temples in Thailand, and saunas in Finland.

Removing Your Shoes…or Not

Hawaii, the South Pacific, Korea, China, Thailand, Russia

It’s pretty common, almost a given, that when you come to someone’s house here in America, most likely you won’t be asked to remove your shoes. However, in some countries it’s a required action that shows your respect to the host house’s housecleaning tasks.

Take off your shoes when arriving at the door of a London dinner party and the hostess will find you uncivilized, but fail to remove your shoes before entering a home in Asia, Hawaii, Russia, or the Pacific Islands and you’ll be considered disrespectful. Not only does shoe removal very practically keeps dirt out of the house, it’s a sign of leaving the outside world behind. And if you are afraid that you’ll end up to be barefoot and cold, in the countries where it’s a tradition to remove shoes, usually offer guest slippers they keep for guests. It’s normal for a Russian household, for example, to have 3-4 pairs of spare slippers at home for guests.

If you see a row of shoes at the door, start undoing your laces. If not, ask the hostess if you can keep your shoes on.

Talking Over Dinner; Waiting Long for Dinner

Countries: Africa, Japan, Thailand, China, Finland

In some countries, like China, Japan, and some African nations, the food’s the thing, so don’t start chatting about your day’s adventures while everyone else is digging into dinner. You’ll likely be met with silence—not because your group is unfriendly, but because mealtimes are for eating, not talking. In such countries as Russia, adults tell kids from very young age to “not talk with mouth full”, teaching the kids to not talk much during a meal.

In other countries, it is considered to be rude to keep guests waiting for dinner for too long. A rule is: if you are invited to a dinner in such countries as Russia, Ukraine, Italy, Germany, Greece, and France, for example, that is almost a proof that once you get there at a set time, the dinner will be already read to serve, as some countries do not believe in snacking and drinking for long before dinner time. This is also because those cultures believe that “a good discussion” comes on full stomach and that during the breaks in the meal, you can discuss what you want to share. However, don’t expect to be sitted for dinner in America; nuts, chips and salsa go a long away until dinner cooks. So make sure you are not starving when you come over for dinner.

Moreover, in some countries it is offensive if you refuse to eat – some will keep encouraging you to eat as much as possible, others would be offended if certain foods are not even touched. While in some countries it is a bad manner to eat a lot at a guest’s house, in Russia, Italy and Greece it is particularly offensive if one is not eating enough. That shows lack of respect to the person who has been cooking the meal. So, do make sure you come hungry on those occasions.

Road Rules, and Driving Ethics

Countries: Hawaii, Russia, France, Italy, around the globe

Honk or fail to pay a police officer a fine, a.k.a. bribe, on the spot when you’re stopped for speeding in Russia and Ukraine, and you’ll risk everything from scorn to prison time. When driving abroad, make sure you have an international driver’s license, insurance and help-line numbers (of local embassies, police stations, tourism bureau). And before you decide to use your mobile phone, make sure this would be ok with the country’s road rules. Also keep in mind that road rules and signs differ from country to a country, not to mention that in such countries as UK and Japan, they drive the left way.

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