First of all, I’d like to explain that these are very general tips. I personally don’t follow all of them all the time, and that’s why I can tell that you can easily be misunderstood or put yourself in an embarrassing situation. So here we have a list of dos and don’ts when traveling to a place where you don’t know much about the guidelines of the culture.
It can be embarrassing (and sometimes really funny), but it’s true that gestures can mean so different things worldwide.
For example: The gesture we use to say “thanks” to a car which stopped for you to cross the street in Belgium, is the same to say “stop” in the same situation in Brazil, and it can be considered a rude attitude over there.
My tip? Watch people on the street and use the same signs they do in the same circumstances.
3. Touching other people
In some countries it’s not a big deal to talk to people and touch their shoulder or arm during the conversation. In other places, that can be received as a rude, intrusive and/or a moral offense. In some others, they even give you three kisses in the chicks only to say “hello”. Shaking hands are normally a polite, respectful and neutral.
So, generally speaking, I’d advise you to give a cordial “hello” and watch other people’s reaction to it, and find a common greeting within what makes you comfortable and the other person as well.
4. Eating in Public
It can sound a little too much, but I know for a fact that you can be fined for eating in a public transport or in an specific space where you were not supposed to in some countries. So, attention to the signs! :)
5. Drinking Alcohol in Public
In a couple of countries, you cannot drink labeled drinks in public. In some others, you cannot drink alcohol at all.
Check. Local. Laws.
If you’re not sure whether you can or not, ask people around you. Alcohol is such a subject of interest that most people will have this answer! hehe
6. Smoking in Public
Almost the same case as the alcohol, make sure to ask locals about the legislation. Although smoking tobacco in open public spaces is allowed in almost every country, some places may have specific conditions and spaces to it.
7. Dressing Up
This is more about moral behavior than necessarily the law. Although most countries don’t have specified what you can and cannot wear in public contexts, all of them have social and moral concepts and pudor protective laws. So if you’re willing to go to a country where you don’t know about what’s acceptable and what’s not, check on it before packing!
8. Driving a car
If you’re travelling as a tourist, most national driver licenses will be accepted in the country you’re visiting for a period of 180 days, so you can simply rent a car during your stay and drive around, right?!
Noo! Not as simples as that!
I really recommend you to take some time to understand two very important things:
local traffic signs;
the sense of preference and priority in the local traffic;
With these two points in mind you may be able not to cause an accident (if you’re going to England, Australia or Japan please please take a few more hours of studying before driving!)
Most people have a religion, and in some countries this is a point that can dictate even small behaviors, conversations and habits.
As we are talking about people’s beliefs in their home country, it’s not as simple as following what you believe no matter whether it will shock the locals or not. This can a very sensitive point and chances are that you’ll be misunderstood and I cannot tell what consequences may be.
I believe the world has being changing a lot when talking about the shock between people with different beliefs, but I still think it’s not worth to impose your way of seeing life in a foreign country. If you’re very strong in your beliefs and think this could be a point of conflict, you should maybe look for places where people have the same religion as yours.
Anyways, my advise in this case is:
Be respectful and try to understand local traditions even when you don’t necessarily agree with them. Talk to people, ask questions kindly and, of course, tell them what your beliefs are if you think it fits, but do not wait people to agree with what you’ll say. It’s about sharing, not electing who’s right!
Sometimes you’ll get to a place where the language has absolutely nothing to do with yours. And no matter how many times you try to speak simple expressions, people will still have problems to understand you. It’s okay!
We still don’t have a single language that everybody can communicate in, so do your best using the languages and expressions you know. English, Spanish and French are the most common, so if you can communicate in one of these, chances are that you’ll find someone who can understand you. Otherwise, body signs, drawing and Google Images are still there to help you!
Even when the local language is a huge challenge for you, I’d still suggest you to try expressions such as “Please”, “Thank you”, “Good Morning” and “Excuse me”. These are just key ones that can show to the locals you’re actually interested in their culture.
Also, you’re going to have so much fun with people’s reaction to your initial really bad or really good pronunciation skills! hehe
But the best advice I can think of when the subject is travelling is: go with your heart and mind as open as possible. Be prepared to learn things and eventually to change sobre old concepts. And enjoy your new you! :)