Customs You Should Know Before You Travel

Being a savvy traveler means more than traveling between time zones. It’s also important to understand the customs, practices and habits of the countries you’re visiting. Customs and etiquette are an integral part of many cultures around the world; thus, you should to familiarize yourself with the local customs of your destination, as knowing a few key cultural practices can enhance your travel experience.

South Korea

  • It’s customary to address people by their last (given) name or title. For example, if someone introduces himself as Ban Ki Moon. It’s safe to assume that his last name is Ban and his first name Ki Moon. Therefore, you should address him as Mr. Ban, and not Ki or Ki Moon.
  • Take off your shoes when entering someone’s home (also in some restaurants).
  • Accept drinks with both hands (with right hand while left hand supports your forearm/wrist), and do not pour your own drink, but do offer to pour others’. It is common to trade and fill each other’s cup.
  • Be careful how you place your chopsticks (also in China and Japan). When you put them down, you shouldn’t leave them sitting upright in your bowl. This is something reserved for honoring the dead. When you need to put yours down, just remember to put them to the side of your bowl, or on a chopstick holder if you have one. Same goes for placement of spoons.
  • Avoid giving change with left hand even if your left handed (also in most Asian countries).
  • Don’t expect personal space when you’re out in public (also in most Asian countries). South Koreans general do not place importance on personal space; therefore, you should not expect that others respect your own space/place.

Thailand

  • Take your shoes off when entering a temple.
  • Don’t show someone the bottom of your foot, as in Thai culture, the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body, and the person who sees the bottoms of yours could be offended. Be mindful of how you sit or stand so that you aren’t pointing the soles of your feet in someone’s direction, especially if you’re sitting on the ground; keep your feet flat on the ground if you stretch your legs out in front of you.

Europe

  • Think before you tip too much. Be sure you check your bill before you pay, as the menu prices tend to include service fees.
  • The niceties of basic greetings really do matter. Remember to say bonjour when you arrive in a shop or restaurant, merci when you want to thank someone, and au revoir when you leave. Not only are you showing basic manners, but you’re making an effort to speak the language, which a native in any country would respect.
  • On the other hand, when in a confrontation or dispute, smiling can be perceived as being dishonest. Instead, keep a straight face and friendly tone.
  • Titles are very important and denote respect. Use a person’s title and their surname until invited to use their first name. You should say Herr or Frau and the person’s title and their surname.
  • Don’t expect speedy service at restaurants, cafes or bars.
  • Don’t be bothered by the silence during a meal. Germans don’t normally engage in conversations while eating.
  • Table manners are extremely important, and almost everything is eaten with knife and fork – even hamburgers and fries. When you’re finished eating, lay your knife and fork parallel across the right side of your plate at a 45 degree angle.
  • Even if you’re invited to a restaurant, everyone is expected to pay for their own meal, and the check can be split 10 separate ways by the wait staff.
  • In numerical expressions German uses a comma where English uses a decimal point, for example, €19,95 (19.95 euros).

Italy & Spain

  • Although shorts are permissible in churches, short shorts and skimpy tops are frowned upon. If you’re wearing a tank top or a strappy sundress, you will be asked to cover your top with a scarf (usually provided by the church). Don’t sight see during church services, although you can stand at the back and look.

Spain

  • Lunch and dinner are served later than most parts of the world, and businesses, especially in smaller cities, are closed during siesta (midday break for lunch and a nap). Evening meals usually begin around 10pm, and it may go on until after midnight.

The UK & Spain

  • Mind your hand gestures and head nods. Although hand gestures might seem to be a great fallback when you don’t speak the language, certain gestures have a very different (and sometimes offensive) meaning in foreign countries. Avoid the two-fingered, reversed “peace” sign in England (both translate loosely to the middle finger in the United States), and the seemingly innocuous devil horns that signifies “rock ‘n’ roll” is actually quite offensive in Spain, where they imply that someone’s spouse has been unfaithful, i.e. a castrated bull.

Ecuador

  • Be prepared for late dinners. Drinks and appetizers may start at 8:00 p.m., and dinner may not be served until 11:00 p.m. or midnight. A party may not end until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. Sometimes breakfast is served before the last guests leave.
  • When guests are invited to a restaurant, the host pays for the meal.

Nigeria

  • Respect is very important in Nigeria as everybody want to be respected. If you are new in Nigeria you may have many offers of help but with an expectation of reward, normally money.
  • Generally Nigerians are very warm and love visitors, and when you’re invited to a restaurant, it’s customary that the host pays the bill.
  • Be respectful of one’s personal space.
  • Remember to tip, usually 15-20%.
  • Don’t be afraid to look people in the eyes when you speak. It signifies that you’re a trustworthy person.
  • Be mindful of smoking area, as smoking may not permitted in most public places and national parks.

Greetings around the world

When traveling, first impression is very important, and greetings are often a crucial interface we have with people.

  • Arab countries: close male friends or colleagues hug and kiss both cheeks. They shake hands with the right hand only, for longer but less firmly than in the West. Contact between the opposite genders in public is considered obscene. Do not offer to shake hands with the opposite sex.
  • Belgium, The Netherlands & Switzerland: 3 kisses from the right
  • China: a nod or bow
  • France: 2 kisses, one on each cheek unless you’re in Paris, then, 4 kisses
  • Japan: bow in 90 degree angle, palms on thighs, heels together
  • Malaysia: both hands touch other person’s hands, then are brought back to the breast, called salame gesture
  • Nigeria: Saying hello is common greeting, and hand shake among close friends.
  • South Korea: bow in 45 degree angle (right hand in one or both hands)
  • Thailand: place palms together, elbows down, and bow head slightly, called wai
  • The US: a hug for close friends and family, a hearty handshake for everyone else. Also, asking, “How are you?” is merely a form of greeting, and should be met with short reply, normally, “Fine, thank you, and you?”. It’s not a real question that warrants a long answer.
  • The UK: same as in The US minus the hugs

What are customs from your country that you would like people from other countries to know?

To find out more about cultural etiquette around the world.

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About S. In

a cultural critic, an avid traveler and a purveyor of social justice and education equity View all posts by S. In

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