Part of what makes the human race such a fascinating species is our amazing diversity. In fact, each of us sees the world in different ways and, of course, in terms of our own cultural traditions. What might seem strange to us, for example, is simply the norm for people in another part of the world—the way they are used to doing, saying, and thinking about things. And—you guessed it—the reverse is just is true: what seems normal to us can seem very strange to others.
For overseas travelers especially, this is an especially important point. And, before going to other parts of the world, we highly encourage travelers to do a little research on what’s appropriate and inappropriate elsewhere.
As a first step, we’d like to offer this Ultimate Travel Guide to Strange Cultures. Call it a primer, if you like, a first look at cultural practices and assumptions that are quite different from ours—and which we need to be sensitive to when we’re traveling abroad. They’re quite interesting, and we hope you enjoy reading about them all!
Throw out the Saltshaker
Got the tummy rumbles while sightseeing in Egypt? Be prepared to find a lot of ignored saltshakers at the restaurant and homes you visit. Grabbing the salt is a big no-no in Egypt because it means that your food is unacceptable. You’re basically telling the cooks that you don’t like what they’re doing in the kitchen and that they need to fix their mistake.
Run into Traffic
From our perspective, the traffic laws in the Middle East might seem very strange. It isn’t uncommon, for example, to find on-ramps that cross on-coming traffic from another on-ramp that crosses on-coming traffic from the interstate. Yes, you read that correctly. Since traffic is this way, pedestrian crossings can be tricky business. It’s not uncommon to find people running through 5 lanes of traffic at a moment’s notice just to get where they need to go. So, if you’re going to do some driving in the Middle East, proceed with great caution.
Carry a Lighter
People in the Middle East love their cigarettes, and their customs have evolved to include etiquette that caters to smokers. Prepare to have people coming from every angle asking for a lighter, and, if you don’t have one, you’ll be looked at strangely. There’s also a benefit to carrying a lighter even if you don’t smoke. You’ll have a chance to ask questions about the area, get tips on places to eat, shop, and visit. And—an added bonus—you can practice your language skills!
Want to Take a Shower?
Americans offer guests a nice cold glass of water upon vising their homes. But, if you travel to Brazil, your hosts might be more apt to offer you a shower as well. The reason is that Brazil can be extremely hot depending on the time of year and, since Brazilians love their hygiene, hosts make sure their guests are very comfortable.
Keep Them Waiting
Here in the U.S. being punctual about appointments, dates, and dinners is viewed as a sign of respect and responsibility. But, if you visit Venezuela, you’d better be late or you’re going to break a social taboo. If you’re invited over and show up early or on time, you’ll be viewed as greedy and eager to take advantage of your hosts’ hospitality. Instead, most people in Venezuela deliberately come about 10 minutes late.
Touch Each Other
In America, we shake hands or say “Hi” when we meet someone new, and, many times, that’s about the only touching we do during social exchanges. But, in South America, you’ll find a whole lot of touching going on. Men and woman are expected to kiss each other on the cheeks, hug each other tightly, and “warmly” look at guests. Plus you’ll need about 30 minutes to say “Good-bye” to everyone in the home with the same enthusiasm as you said “Hello.” If not, you’ll leave others with the impression that they’re not important to you.
Ketchup with Your Pizza?
Some people just use ketchup a little differently than everyday Americans. So don’t be surprised if you’re in South America and you’re asked if you would like some ketchup with your pizza. Folks from Rio de Janeiro, for example, just love drenching pizza with ketchup.
Here in America, toilet paper goes in the toilet and you watch it flush down the drain without a second’s thought. But if you try this in Africa, you’ll get a scolding. African plumbing systems work differently from American systems, which means that your soiled toilet paper can’t get flushed down the drain. Instead, it’s thrown into a toilet-specific trashcan. Sure it’s not ideal, but it’s better than clogging the toilet every time you use it.
Kidnap Your Wife-to-Be
In the U.S., if a man wants to propose to a woman, he gets down on his knee and “pops” the question. But, in Sudan, the process is quite different. There, marriage tradition dictates that a man must first kidnap his bride-to-be, then face her father and ask his permission to marry his daughter. If the father accepts, he beats his future son-in-law as a sign of acceptance…and a warning of what is to come if he mistreats his daughter.
You have 1 Missed Call
In the U.S., if you hear your phone ring but miss the call, you call back. But in some European countries, things are a bit different. If you call someone back, the person will likely be confused. The reason is that the caller isn’t actually trying to talk to you—the caller just wants to let you know that he or she is thinking about you. If a significant other leaves you a 1-ring call, they’re trying to tell you they love you. If a business partner leaves you a 1-ring call, they’re just telling you they’ll be 10 minutes late. The context changes depending on the person giving you a 1-ring call, and people pick it up up over time.
Careful How You Drink in Hungary
One thing many American’s love to do while traveling is head over to the local pub and clink pints together. But, in Hungary, clinking your glasses together is a big social faux pas. Unlike some odd customs, this actually has a date: 1849. Hungary was invaded and conquered by Austria, and afterwards Austrian military leaders could be heard throughout the land laughing, drinking, and “clinking” their glasses together. So, in Hungary, clinking is a reminder of death and defeat.
Enjoy a Good Sweat
In Finland, if you’re going to a business meeting, a friend’s house, or a family reunion, don’t be surprised if someone answers the door in a towel. Saunas are everywhere in Finland, and meeting up at the local sauna is just something people do to relax and socialize.
Why Drive When You Can Walk?
Americans love their big cars, but outside the U.S. people prefer to bike, walk, or use public transportation. If you’re visiting another country, try to blend in by using a different method of transportation and skip the car altogether.
‘Really Love Your College?
We Americans don’t think twice when we see a middle-aged man wearing a college T-shirt, sweatshirt, or cap. But you’ll get some weird looks if you bring your college clothes with you in your travels. Outside the U.S. attachment to your school is practically unheard of because school is considered something for kids and not for adults.
Pencil in a Few Hours
In France, going out for drinks isn’t about getting a drink; it’s about sitting, relaxing, and enjoying a good conversation for a few hours. As such, it is quite common, for example, for people to sip a single espresso for a very long time. Espresso is about the experience, and can be served in a very elaborate manner. So, when abroad, try not to guzzle down your drink. Take some time, and enjoy the experience.
Careful Who You Call Friends
The Netherlands is an extremely difficult place to find a friend. This isn’t because the Dutch are unfriendly people, but because they hold onto their friendships so tightly that it’s extremely difficult to join a new circle of friends. So, if you call someone a friend that you’ve just met in the Netherlands, you might actually be offending the person instead. They’ll think you have no standard for friendship, and that your long-term friends are no more important than a new acquaintance.
Straight to the Point
People in many Northern European countries are so truthful it hurts. The normal policy is to get straight to the point and tell the truth about something with no sugar coating. Americans often bend the truth because they respect someone and don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings. But in Europe it’s just the opposite. Europeans bend the truth for people they don’t respect. So, if Europeans you meet are sandwiching truths between compliments you might be a little suspicious.
Examine Business Cards Closely
Throughout Asia, business cards are like mini resumes that need to be scrutinized, studied, and handled like a multi-million dollar business deal. As such, business cards have a certain etiquette associated with them. If someone hands you a business card, make sure you use two hands to accept it, and examine it carefully. If you put it away too soon, it’s a sign of disrespect. Also, never write on an Asian’s business card. It’s a major insult, akin to writing on a photograph of the person’s face.
Pucker Like a Fish
In Asia (and many other parts of the world) it’s extremely rude to point, even at inanimate objects. Instead, you’ll see people making “kissy faces” to replace their finger pointer. They don’t hold the pose but instead do it quickly to try and direct another’s gaze at the object or person requiring attention. So, don’t look at others strangely if you see someone puckering like a fish.
From Russia with Flowers
Meeting a friend or business associate in Russia? Be aware that giving a flower in Russia can mean different things from what we are used to. Yellow flowers mean treachery. So, though you’re just trying to be nice and brighten up the place, you might actually be communicating an insult. Likewise, red carnations in Russia are associated with death. Cruise through any Russian cemetery and you’ll find red carnations everywhere.
Peanut Butter Sandwiches
Americans working aboard might want to bring a sack lunch with a PB&J sandwich to work. But be careful what you pack because to the rest of the world peanut butter is offensive. Many outside of the United States view it as having a strange texture and an odd taste and being just plain unsavory.
In India, Haggle for Everything
In India (as in many countries outside the U.S.), haggling is both a skill and a form of entertainment. In fact, Indians simply stay away from using prices. The trick is to begin by letting the seller offer a price. Then, the potential buyer refuses, listing off every problem to be found. The game is one of calling bluffs, and the buyers use every tool under the sun from body language, to walking away, to turning their backs. So have fun and haggle in your travels, and realize everything is negotiable. For more on the high art of haggling overseas, check out this recent article.
Leave Your Shorts At Home
In most of the world, particularly in India, only children wear short pants. If an adult is wearing shorts, people around them will think they are acting childish and will not take the person seriously.
Finally, if you have some examples of your own you’d like to add to our list, be our guest. Just add a comment at the end of this article.