Practicing Cultural Etiquette When Traveling in a Foreign Country

The reasons we travel usually include learning about and seeing new and exciting places, experiencing unfamiliar cultures, and meeting new people. We all understand when we travel that there are differences in how we conduct ourselves in our home country versus how things are done where we’re going.

Unfortunately, far too many travelers tend to ignore this. They simply take the blueprint of how they behave at home with them when they travel, thinking everything will be just fine.

Not always! Some cultural etiquette mistakes result in momentary embarrassment for one or both parties; some can end up with far more serious consequences. For the avid, thoughtful traveler, how can we avoid making these kinds of etiquette errors? Here are a few general tips.

1. Advance Research

Practicing Cultural Etiquette When Traveling in a Foreign Country

You can’t be expected to know all the ins and outs of every culture where you are traveling. However, you can be a thoughtful traveler and take the time to do some basic research before you board the plane. There’s not a single person who travels without looking up some of the sights they’re planning to visit when they go on a trip; take the time to look up some of the cultural norms as well.

2. Pay Attention

Practicing Cultural Etiquette When Traveling in a Foreign Country

One of the biggest complaints you hear from locals about tourists is that they just don’t pay attention to their surroundings. This can take the form of yapping loudly in a museum or a house of worship, or forgetting that New York is a city of 8 million busy people, so mindlessly blocking the sidewalk is a huge no-no. Simply looking around and taking stock of your surroundings and how people around you are behaving can go a long way toward avoiding cultural faux pas.

3. Be Respectful

Practicing Cultural Etiquette When Traveling in a Foreign Country

Hand in hand with paying attention to your surroundings is simply being respectful of the way others do things when you are in a foreign country. For instance, in western societies we don’t have the same strictures on what constitutes “offensive” clothing for women. But if you want to visit a country that does, you might want to be aware of what people there find offensive. Being culturally sensitive doesn’t necessarily mean you condone their ways, just that you respect them.

4. Communicate

Practicing Cultural Etiquette When Traveling in a Foreign Country

If you have any questions, misunderstandings or need any clarification on cultural norms where you are visiting, ask! Now, there are caveats here: be sensitive about whom you ask and what you ask about! But most people you meet are just as eager to meet foreigners as you are to meet them, and many love to share their culture. These kinds of questions can lead to wonderful conversations about cultural differences. Gently inquiring as to what the normal tip amount is or if it’s better if you take off your shoes when you enter someone’s home is probably going to be much appreciated 9 times out of 10.

The main thing to remember when it comes to cultural etiquette when traveling abroad is that it isn’t them who are different – it’s you! Simply understanding this truth will go a long way to avoiding the most embarrassing mistakes.


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