Unfortunately, there’s no handbook labelled “How to avoid disgracing your family when travelling” and if there is, chances are it barely skims over the cultural etiquettes you need to know to not ultimately offend someone in your naïve attempt at being polite. Mind you, I’m not trying to scare you from travelling. The truth is some of us forget that
a) cultures vary; what’s height of courtesy to one can be highly offensive to another.
b) travelling is supposed to be an educational experience.
c) your own cultural etiquettes are ingrained in your very behaviour, but that doesn’t make you entitled.
Here’s a list that is hardly even the tip of the ice berg when it comes to cultural etiquettes you need to keep in mind when standing on foreign land;
Dressing for the occasion, seriously.
Your naked calves might scream less “progressive” and more “I’m a hobo and an infidel” in some places. Mostly in South Asian countries, some in South Africa and in the Middle East among a few others, culture demands that you dress modestly and keep your hairy legs, knees, shoulders, elbows, and in some places even hair covered. This is more stressed for females as they are expected to dress conservatively, although men aren’t exactly exempt from this rule.
And while you’re at it, keep your hands to yourself. Public displays of affections are frowned upon and in countries like Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan don’t try to shake the hand of a person belonging to the opposite gender unless they offer first.
Mind your limbs
In many countries, like Thailand, India and some Arab countries, the soles of your feet are the lowest of the low, not just literally but metaphorically too. As in it is the highest form of disrespect to point your feet towards someone.
In some places you might be expected to sit on the ground to eat along with your hosts, be sure to mind your legs when you do. Also when you need to ask directions, just use your hands. Of course you’ll need to be careful with your hands too, as in countries like Greece extended hand with palm outwards may also be interpreted as insulting.
The art of giving
In Russia, don’t be surprised if you give an even number of flowers to your lady love and she ends up tearfully running away throwing the offending flowers in your general direction. Ok, so that’s a bit overdramatic of a scenario, or maybe you have flamboyant tastes, either way the fact remains that in Russia an even number of flowers are only given when someone dies. So you can imagine why it would be misinterpreted by a perfectly healthy, living breathing person.
Actually, exchange of gifts everywhere has a bit of a protocol. For example in China pretend to hesitate until the gift is offered at least three times, and on the third offer you can greedily leap at it.
In most parts of Asia, avoid opening gifts in front of the person who gave it to you unless they’re close friends. It emphasises that the act of giving is more important than the gift itself. If you think about it, it’s a pretty good rule considering you don’t have to hide you crippling disappointment and act as if that hideous sweater was just what you needed.
Another strange yet practical Russian etiquette; where you might greet a Russian stranger with a polite smile, they might think of you someone with deep dark secrets you are scrambling to hide. Russians distrust polite smiles, and prefer it if you keep a genuine straight face rather than plaster on a fake smile, as it shows that you are unwilling to show your true feeling therefor you must be an American spy.
Another problem regarding body language is the fact that no two personal spaces are alike. What does that mean? It basically means that if you stand to far from a Mediterranean person they’ll think you’re a jerk and if you stand too close to a person from Scandinavia you might get mace in your face. How do you avoid potential injury to you reputation or person? Observation.
Problem is that the diameter of your personal space has been ingrained in your brain, so the way you handle it is completely unconscious. Though it is also likely that people will forgive you on the terms of “stupid tourist” should you forget to respect the distance kept between the two of you.
Elbows off the table
Table etiquettes are, quite obviously, the most stressed upon because they are the easiest to observe. But it’s not just about where to put your fork and how high to raise your pinkie while drinking tea. For example in many parts of Asia and middle east, the left hand is symbolically used for personal hygiene so unless you want your hosts to think of you as an uncultured savage, avoid touching any food with your left hand and only use your right hand to eat.
Adding salt in your food in Egypt is considered offensive because it means the food wasn’t to your tastes.
Tipping in Japan is strange and awkward because that’s the employer’s job. It is considered polite to burp after a meal in China and don’t forget to make a mess of Spanish bars as it is the highest form of compliment.