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Taboos, Faux Pas and Norms – How to Handle Them When Traveling

Posted on Apr 16 2015 under Blog Posts

globesuitcaseThere are many different things to take into consideration before traveling abroad. Conducting some research before heading out can help you understand what to pack and what to expect on your journey. Last week’s Texas Conflict Coach® blog post focused primarily on handling issues dealing with language barriers when traveling. Continuing with that theme, this blog concentrates more on cultural taboos, faux pas and overall etiquette while in a foreign country. Various countries across the globe have their own unique beliefs, traditions, habits and social behaviors that shape their culture. Learning about the people, customs, rules and norms of your host country can make your trip more interesting and exciting. By being conscious of your host country’s culture, you can also prevent yourself from getting into conflict or doing something embarrassing. Furthermore, demonstrating cultural etiquette is a sign of respect. It should be stressed that culture is dynamic and changes over time. Some norms that you research could be outdated and no longer apply. Also, not everyone follows their own country’s norms or typical practices. Nonetheless, when preparing for your trip, it is important that you study your host country’s culture in order to understand their way of life.

One of the first differences you can notice between two cultures is the type of attire being worn. Since individuals often judge one another based on first impressions, it is important to understand the type of clothing worn. In some countries the general style is rather relaxed and casual, while other countries are stricter. For example, in some European countries such as Germany, the common style is more formal compared to the United States. In the United States, colors and shoe choice play a small role, but in Germany, bright colors are often only worn by younger people and shoes have specific purposes. Flip-flops, which are commonly worn in the United States to the mall, around town or at the beach, should only be worn at the beach or near a swimming pool in Germany. It is not offensive to wear Flip-Flops around town, but it is considered embarrassing. An American tourist who did not conduct cultural research before his or her trip could travel through Germany wearing Flip-flops and never understand why he or she constantly received weird looks.

Dining is another area where cultures often have unique differences. According to an article on the site MindTools, differences in seating, utensils, conversation, body langue, and timeliness are important aspects to consider when dining abroad. When drinking in a pub in Australia, for example, it would be considered rude to not pay for a round of drinks when it is your turn. Focus on the dining experience and food being served plays a large and vocal role in France, but in Germany, work related matters are often discussed instead. In Russia and South Korea, alcohol plays a large cultural role, but in United Arab Emirates alcohol is rarely consumed and limited to restaurants. Punctuality is extremely important to Germans, while in Mexico, timeliness is not as serious and is treated completely differently. Interestingly, the common American “OK” symbol (thumb and index finger touching) is an offensive gesture in some South American countries.

TravelTaboo is an online resource that provides cultural information on different countries.

If you are thinking about traveling to Japan: be prepared to take off your shoes when you go into someone’s house (you want to make sure your socks do not have holes in them). Unlike in the United States where seating plays a minor role, it is important to not sit down before you are told where. When dining in Japan, you should not tip or use chopsticks in a non-traditional fashion.

Thinking about visiting China? You should know that physical contact is something that should be avoided. Opening a present in front of the person who gave it to you is considered rude. You should also consider things that in your culture play little or no role. For example, do not use red ink when writing in China as it is a sign of a relationship ending.

Learning cultural etiquette can enrich your journey and help create a smooth trip. If you’re traveling abroad to a foreign culture – check out these resources to help educate yourself and avoid any possible embarrassment: Kwintessential, TravelTaboo and Mind Tools – Dining Faux Pas

John Wagner

Student Intern

Salisbury University – Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution


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