I've been thinking about the pitfalls of travel lately, especially those of the culture variety. While travel gives us the means to recharge our batteries and gain a fresh perspective on life, it can also have its fair share of pitfalls, especially when we traverse foreign soil without having a clue of the local customs and laws.
The simple act of eating, for example, can be a social minefield. Forget about the fact that in India, one should never thank their host at the end of a lovely meal as one will, in fact, be insulting them. Or that while one is expected to slurp one’s noodles in Japan, burping is a real no-no. Instead, spare a thought for the clueless tourist who visits the United Arab Emirates during Ramadan, has a drink of juice in public, and is fined $275 for the privilege. In Singapore, the simple past time of chewing gum will find you behind bars.
Drinking, too, has its fair share of snares. In Russia, there will be toasts. Endless toasts. With vodka. Straight and downed in one swallow. To leave before your group has completed the toasting round is considered really bad form. And that could take a very, VERY long time. In Tibet, a guest must dip some alcohol on their third finger and flip the alcohol in the air three times when toasting. Or was it two? And while you’re in Japan, never say “chin chin” when raising your glass; it refers to the male genitalia. Breaking out into a sweat already?
International greeting etiquette provides its fair share of snares. In the West, it is perfectly acceptable to do a group wave when you see a bunch of people that you know, with a dose of, “Hi, everyone!” for good measure. I have news for you. This would be considered extremely vulgar in France, where the done thing is to greet each and every person individually. And God forbid that you should attempt to shake the hand or give an innocent peck on the cheek to a member of the opposite sex in the United Arab Emirates. This too will land you in jail.
Social behaviour can differ drastically from country to country, and one of the most obvious areas is the concept of personal space. In China, where there is less of it, a Western visitor may find themselves continually stepping back as a perfect stranger keeps stepping forward to bridge the gap. When waiting for the train or the bus, you will invariable get shoved from behind. Here’s a word of advice: resist the temptation to push back. The Chinese aren’t use to standing in lines and one isn’t required to be polite to strangers.
In contrast, the British are obsessed with maintaining and respecting personal space, which explains why they have a certain reserve when engaging in conversation. They would never dream of gesticulating wildly, making dramatic facial expressions, or raising their voices when speaking. Unlike people from the Mediterranean, they’re not big on social kissing, hugging, or backslapping either. You can just picture the scenario, can’t you? A Spaniard conversing with an Englishman, wildly flapping arms, patting shoulders, and speaking like his life depended on it. Meanwhile, the Englishman closes in on himself in discomfort, backing away slowly and discreetly in a hilarious cross-cultural waltz.
The area that would have to be the most sensitive to cultural discrepancies, and has sparked the most controversy, is dressing etiquette. While its perfectly acceptable for women to dress in trousers in the rest of the Western world, women are forbidden to wear clothing resembling menswear in Swaziland. As for men in Thailand, it is illegal to drive a car or motorcycle without a shirt on. Punishments, which are regularly carried out by police, range from verbal warnings to tickets costing about $10.
In the words of the great Jawaharal Nehru, “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” A successful trip to any part of the world depends equally on the preparation we make ahead of our journey - specifically self-education on local etiquette and laws - as well as the practical travel precautions that one normally takes while on foreign soil. Bon Voyage!
How to be a conscious traveler, in a nutshell: T - Take the appropriate clothing for the culture & the weather. R - Respect the local customs. A - Adopt a mindset of non-judgment about a foreign culture. V - Value your host culture by researching its history & religion before your travels. E - Experience a destination like a local. Explore the local cuisine. L - Laws of other cultures may be different to your own. Find out what they are and abide by them.