Cultural Taboos: How not to drop culture bombs when you travel.

Cultural Taboos: How not to drop culture bombs when you travel.

Some people just shouldn’t travel. Ever!

Their journeys should terminate at the shopping mall, the local bar, or the post office. But definitely no further.

Not because they don’t deserve to travel, we all do, but these guys go a very long way towards making it really difficult for the rest of us. In fact, sometimes they can even make it downright dangerous for those of us who have to follow in their wake.

They’re a special breed, without meaning to be.

They smash their way through cultural borders as if they don’t exist. They are the bulls in the china shop of taboo. The kings and queens of The Republic of Cringeworthy. And, their ample suitcases bulge with undeclared amounts of bootleg stupidity just waiting to explode.

Disarm the culture bomb before it goes off

Here’s a little tip – in fact, it’s a big tip. Before you travel somewhere, read.

Actually, read and learn as much as you can about the destination, the language, culture, religion, customs, foods, drinks, history, politics, laws, anything. Read as much as you can, and most importantly read about what is regarded as being acceptable behavior, and what is not.

Just because it’s fine to do something where you live, that doesn’t mean it’s ok everywhere else. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ – this fine piece of advice didn’t just come about by accident.

What’s acceptable at home may not be accepted abroad

I once saw an Asian tourist walk up the center aisle of a Croatian Catholic church with a video camera wedged firmly to his eye. So, what’s wrong with that, lots of churches promote tourism? That’s true, but not in the middle of a Sunday morning religious service. To put it very mildly, the locals were far from amused.

Every time we cross a border seeking new travel experiences, we’re entering unknown territory – and not just physically. We are exposing ourselves to lines that have been blurred by culture, heritage, religion, and a hundred other circumstances. We need to be constantly on our guard.

Don’t give them a stick to beat you with

No matter how much we read or prepare for a new travel experience, we can’t be expected to know everything.

Whenever a newcomer does something as nasty as blowing their nose publicly in China – try to avoid this if you can and hope you don’t catch a cold – the locals will usually make allowances for any oversight, and just put it down to ignorance. But, do you really want to be regarded as an ignorant traveler? Wouldn’t it be far better to know about this faux pas in advance of your arrival?

Whether you’re an experienced traveler, a newbie, or someone who thinks they’ve learned all they need to know, some local customs can come at you by surprise. There are customs and traditions that are so ingrained into society that they become commonplace for the local but remain unknown to the tourist. This lack of knowledge can be the stick with which to beat the unsuspecting road warrior.

So, let’s get you started with a look at some of the cultural indiscretions which have the potential to raise their ugly heads as you venture outside your comfort zone.

Don’t let your wardrobe get you in hot water – religion, and travel

It’s nice to dress for comfort when you travel but be advised, do so with caution.

Not every destination may be as tolerant as your local beach, bar, or nightclub when it comes to bearing flesh. Visitors to countries holding deeply religious views – most especially across the world of Islam from the Middle East to Indonesia – should dress conservatively, with special attention being paid to women travelers. In churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and other places of devotion, avoid naked flesh, miniskirts, tight tee-shirts, shorts, and even short-sleeve shirts. Men should also be respectful avoiding shorts and sleeveless shirts when entering religious or public buildings.

Seriously, try not to annoy the locals – all over the world

I’m lucky, I live in a beautiful city, much loved by tourists – Lithuania’s postcard-perfect capital, Vilnius – and it’s wonderful to be able to share the sights, sounds, and tastes with so many interested visitors, but – and it’s a big but – try to respect the fact that the locals have lives to live, and businesses to run. Avoid cluttering up the sidewalk while taking photographs. Don’t point your camera indiscriminately without permission. Respect local properties and homes – never peek through open house windows (I’ve seen it done so many times). If you have a question or want to take a particular photo, just ask, you’ll be surprised how nice most people are when a little respect is shown.

Central and Eastern Europe’s three unique cultural banana skins

  • Say it with flowers in Russia, and other parts – If your particular travel experience has brought you to parts of Eastern Europe, there are a few potential cultural banana skins you might want to be aware of. In Russia – and other places in this part of the world (read, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechia, Belarus, Moldova, among others) – the number of flowers you present to a person really matters. An odd number of flowers is the norm in social interactions, while even numbers are reserved exclusively for funerals.
  • Remove your shoes right across the region – This next one makes sense. The streets are full of all sorts of unpleasantness, which we walk in every day. So, by the time you get to visit your host’s home you’re already carrying an awful lot of germs on your shoes. Answer – It’s usually the norm to remove your shoes when arriving at the home in question, but don’t worry, there’s sure to be a pair of comfy and warm guest slippers waiting for you.
  • Time to toast in Eastern Europe – Raise your glasses to say Cheers, Na Zdorovie, Sto Lat, Na Zdravi, I Sveikata, Zivjeli, Egeszsegedre, Noroc, Lecha’im, Uz Veselibu, Prieka, Terviseks, or however else it might be expressed in the local language. But, whatever you do, don’t forget to look your toast partner DIRECTLY in their eyes as you express your wishes.


If you love each other do it privately in the Middle East and Asia

Certain countries – usually in the Middle East and Asia, but also in parts of Africa – don’t take too kindly to public shows of affection. Whether you’re walking the streets of Dubai, or negotiating the crowds of Mumbai keep your hugs, kisses, and cuddles for the privacy of your home or hotel room, some countries have even been known to throw clueless lovebirds in prison for their over amorous behavior.

Shaking hands, but be careful wherever you go

Many of us take the simple act of shaking hands for granted. When we meet someone in either a social or business capacity we’re usually quick to stretch out our hands and offer a big hello. But beware. In many regions – again mostly the Middle East and Asia – shaking hands with the opposite sex is a big No No. Especially when it comes to men offering to shake the hand of a female counterpart. I didn’t say it was right, it’s just the way it is.

Giving the thumbs-up the thumbs-down in Greece

Hand gestures were around long before the spoken word evolved, and they’re still around waiting to get you into trouble. The simple thumbs up gesture we see as a sign to represent our feelings for ‘good job’ or that ‘everything’s OK’, might prove that everything is not as OK as you think when used in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

Also, when traveling in Greece, Armenia, Nigeria, and Pakistan, try not to openly display the full palm of your hand – as if staying stop. It’s taken in a completely different light in these parts.

Never touch a person’s head in Thailand

Most people have heard this by now but it’s still worth putting it out there one more time. Never, I repeat, NEVER touch someone’s head in Thailand. The head is thought to be the most sacred and cleanest part of the body, so keep your hands away from the head or hair.

If you do happen to make a mistake, apologize quickly and you’ll find how forgiving most Thai people can be. Also, as a sidenote for visitors to Thailand, never speak ill of the Royal Family, when entering temples cover your body but remove your shoes, and when people offer you the wai greeting – bowed head and praying hands gesture – return it with a smile.

Give the flag the attention it deserves, especially in Africa

Many countries, especially across the African continent – as I discovered in Kenya – revere their national flag and treat it with the utmost respect. Outside public buildings in many countries, national flags are raised and lowered at sunrise and sunset. If you happen to be passing when this much-respected tradition occurs it would be wisest to stop and stand to attention until the flag has been fully raised or lowered. And trust me, the locals will love you for it.

In London, up or down, left is right

This one – to the best of my knowledge – is peculiar to the UK capital, London. When traveling on the escalators which transport millions of the city’s commuters to and from the underground trains system every day ALWAYS stand on the right. Standing on the left will get you barged out of the way – accompanied by a litany of swear words – by those in a hurry to actually climb the steps. Plus, if you do happen to stand on the left side, everyone will immediately recognize you for what you are – a tourist.

Best advice – Get clued in before you go

Never assume that just because nobody says anything about your behavior that it’s acceptable. In Asia most people will avoid confrontation when you’ve dropped a cultural bomb, they prefer to be seen as wanting to ‘save face’ – that is to avoid the humiliation that comes with the loss of respect.

There are thousands of cultural collisions waiting to happen as you travel. You’re not expected to be aware of them all, but try to be aware of as many as is humanly possible. If in doubt ask a local, apologize, explain to them that in your country it’s acceptable to do X, Y, or Z, not only will they appreciate your communication, but they may also enjoy the experience of learning about your homeland.

We’re all different, but basically, we’re all the same. We live by different rules and conventions which govern our society, our daily lives, and our culture, but at the core of most cultures is the willingness to welcome, to do good, and to offer help when and where possible.

As you travel the unfamiliar road, remember to always tread softly and wisely.

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