Brush-up on the customs and traditions of your destination to fit right in while abroad. How to respect local culture, gestures to avoid, the proper way to raise your glass – our top 23 travel tips and traditions will definitely have you impressing the locals.
If you’re planning a trip to India, you should practice being ambidextrous. Both hands have a specific purpose here, and your right hand is for eating. If you eat with your left hand you might garner some crooked looks as that’s your “bathroom” hand, reserved for cleaning yourself.
It is said that food tastes better when you use your (right) hand, and that you are more connected to the food and the nature that produced it. So just wash up and be wary of which hand is reaching for the plate. This tip is also applicable in Sri Lanka and in certain parts of the Middle East.
Read more: 12 reasons to visit India
Play with your food, not with the utensils. In South Korea, as with most Asian countries, sticking your chopsticks into a bowl of rice while you are not eating is considered disrespectful. It could be because it resembles the sticks of incense that burn upright to honour the dead, but can also just look like you don’t appreciate the food you’ve been served. Keep your sticks to yourself, placing them where you initially found them when done using them, and no one will get hurt. About to write a letter to a Korean friend? Double-check what colour pen you’re about to use, and avoid red ink like the plague. Said to bring death or misery to whomever has his name written in red ink, you might well give the wrong impression.
With inevitable delays, difficult routes and millions of passengers squashed together, using the London Underground can be a bit of a calamity. But, the biggest cardinal sin one can commit is standing on the left-hand side of the escalator, blocking the steady flow of furious commuters looking to escape the rush-hour Tube doom as quickly as possible. Unless you want to push the typically excessive British politeness to its limit, make sure you stand on the right. If a native tells you that the evening train departs at “half seven”, they mean 7.30pm. This frustrating Briticism is a particular nuisance to Scandinavians, Germans and the Dutch, who would take it to actually mean 6.30pm. But if you do get it wrong, at least you’ll always be arriving an hour early to wherever you are headed.
Don’t confuse a Nicaraguan’s kissy-face as an invitation to plant one on them. It’s very common in Nicaragua, and other Latin American countries, that pointing with the finger is replaced with pointing with the mouth. A classic duck-face and a slight thrust in the direction of the person or place you wish to indicate will suffice to indicate what you wish to point out. This gesture is also common in the Philippines.
As excellent hosts, a meal could go on for hours in an Iranian home if you don’t hint in an Iranian way that you’ve had enough to eat. Although tempting to finish every bite of the chelo kebab (rice and meat), your host will not cease to insist on serving you seconds if you don’t leave a little bit of food on your plate, implying you’ve had enough.
A similar example of Iranians’ generous hospitality, ta’arof – excessive politeness – is a never-ending exchange of civilities until the offeror or receiver cedes. A recent acquaintance insists you come over for a meal? A vendor refuses payment for goods at his shop? A common play is to decline the offer once or twice and eventually accept, the art is knowing where to draw the line.
If you ask Swedes to describe Sweden in one word, the term ‘lagom’ might be their favourite. A typically Swedish term in that it’s virtually non-translatable in one word, it could be defined as meaning “just enough” or “enough for everyone”. Lagom is about being and having neither too much nor too little, providing for everyone around the table, and generally doing everything in moderation and fairness, which reflects Sweden’s values for equality. So when in Sweden, practice lagom and you’ll fit right in.
So maybe you’re in the “Eat” chapter of your Eat, Pray, Love adventure, which makes this next custom very easy to follow. Unlike in Iran, when in Italy, never leave food on your plate; your host might feel you didn’t enjoy the meal they prepared. The best way to really prove you loved every bite is to make a ‘scarpetta’. Literally translated as ‘little shoe’, tear off a small piece of bread, and dip the edge into the sauce lying in your plate. The little shoe walks around the entire plate until the entire thing shines like new. Hold back your craving to order a cappuccino for dessert. Italians know not to drink hot milk on a full stomach to not upset digestion, so refrain from drinking any frothy coffee drink past morning, and opt for a simple caffé – the classic term for a single shot espresso.
Forget everything you’ve learned about how to say yes and no, and do the exact opposite in Bulgaria. Here you’ll be misunderstood if you don’t shake for yes and nod for no. Folklore has it that this practice of switching yes and no comes from a brave protest when Orthodox Bulgarians were captured by Ottoman occupants and asked to deny their religion. A sword pointed to their throat, Bulgarian martyrs nodded vigorously to die at their hands and not convert to Islam. Perhaps more fable than fact, the yes and no gestures are said to have been reversed ever since. No matter if the legend is true or not, avoid the headache altogether and learn to say “da” for yes and “ne” for no.
If you’ve been invited to someone’s home in Japan, check your feet! As a sign of honour and respect towards your host’s home, you’re going to have to leave your shoes in the entrance. But keep your socks on as it’s seen as disrespectful to walk around barefoot in their home. Worry not if you have holes in your socks, Japanese homes often have sets of ‘uwabaki’, indoor slippers, for their guests. And when the meal is served, join in on the chorus of slurping noodles; eating loudly is absolutely encouraged.
Drinking in Russia may as well rhyme with hangover. Here the rules are simple, it’s bottoms up only. Your host will serve you a shot or small glass of vodka straight, and will expect you to drink it fully in one gulp, not putting down the glass unless it’s empty. Seen as rude to refuse vodka, you’ll probably have to drink each shot that is poured each time you place that empty glass on the table. A vicious circle? Perhaps. A good time? Most definitely.
Saying hello in France? Make sure you know when to double-up, triple-up, or even quadruple-up. In certain regions it is normal for both men and women to kiss people on both cheeks when greeting and saying goodbye to friends, family or acquaintances, even if it is just the first time you meet.
In the southeast region you’ll often be kissing about three times, whereas in the northwest your greeting isn’t complete until you’ve kissed each cheek twice, and beware of those other regions, like the Finistère or Deux-Sèvres, that leave you hanging after just one peck. If that weren’t complicated enough, follow the locals’ lead concerning the direction you start kissing in to avoid that awkward lip-lock!
Read more: discover the wine regions of France
Brazilians have their own sense of time giving punctuality a whole new meaning. If you’re invited to a feijoada at a charming Brazilian’s home, consider arriving an hour later as opposed to arriving on time or even early. It’s commonly understood that one is expected to arrive no less than an hour past the invitation time to avoid catching the host off-guard or seeming over eager. So chill out a bit longer at the beach, catch that last-minute sunset, and head over to that party, fashionably and suitably late (on time).
If you want to fit in with local Turks, be prepared to drink an overwhelming amount of tea. Cay, as it is called in Turkey, is served for breakfast, after lunch, for afternoon break, after dinner, and basically any time a friendly Turk invites you to their home. And if you set down your emptied elegant hour-glass shaped tea glasses on the table, it will be refilled with another piping-hot serving. How do you stop this endless flow of tea? Simple, just place your tea spoon across the glass in a gesture that implies a silent, “no, thank you.”
Enjoyed your meal? In certain parts of China belching a discreet burp is encouraged as it signifies being satisfied with a meal. The same custom goes in parts of Saudi Arabia, as well. Can’t belch in public? A simple, “that was lovely,” will suffice. On a whole other note, if travelling for business, make sure to hold your business card with two hands when offering it at a business meeting to show you respect the business transaction at hand. A translated business card will also give you extra points.
Met some great Aussies and been invited over to a Sunday barbie? Lucky you! While these antipodeans are extremely hospitable, don’t expect them to throw you infinite shrimps on the BBQ. Make sure you show up with a case of ice cold brews under the one arm, and your meat or veg of choice to sling on the fire. The key term here being B.Y.O. – Bring Your Own.
Swigging beer and merriment is encouraged here, just as long as you don’t clink glasses together when you toast. A custom over 150-years-old, it links back to the war of independence in 1849, when the winning generals of the opposing Austrian Empire were smugly clinking glasses and celebrating their victory. If in doubt, just keep your glass to yourself. Especially if you’re Austrian.
Cycling in Copenhagen? Make sure you don’t try to cut a red light and turn right. Not only will the Danes be snappy, you might risk getting a fine. Recently the fines have been doubled to amount to 1000 DKK (£115), money better spent on cold Carlsbergs on the beach. Similar to the London Underground, stick to the right-hand-side of the bike lane if you don’t want to get “ding-ed” out of the way by a bolide-like cyclist. And practice your Copenhagen Left if you don’t want to upset the cars as well – riding through the intersection and placing yourself in the perpendicular bike lane once on the other side, allowing for a safe left turn away from traffic.
Norwegians have a habit of eating most foods – including the usual guilt-free hands-on foods like sandwiches and pizza – with utensils. To play it safe, just stick to using a fork and knife when in Norway. And remember to bring your own beer or drinks when invited to a party, sharing with others isn’t impossible but you’ll definitely stand out if you show up empty handed.
A fun tradition in Thailand you may want to play along with is dressing up in different colours each day of the week. Based on an astrological chart, colours define specific days based on the colour associated with the god that is honoured that day. You’ll be wearing red on Sunday, the day of god Surya, and will be wearing light blue on Friday, the day of god Shukra. Be wary though, each day also has a bad luck colour so study up on the chart before packing that suitcase.
When in Thailand, for the best local grub, look towards the water. An hour-and-a-half drive from Bangkok, at Amphawa Floating Market, join the crowd of local Thai crammed along the riverbanks, waiting for some fresh grilled fish. Definitely skip the restaurant areas, and grab a front-row seat facing the water to watch the floating spectacle of local produce.
Read more: the best islands in Thailand
The long forgotten childhood pleasure of napping in the afternoon is alive and well in Spain. Conveniently called ‘la siesta’, the nap, is a long-practiced tradition of leaving work or school midday to rest or have a late lunch. Don’t get caught trying to run an errand during la siesta, most businesses shut their doors around 2pm to 4pm. Luckily, in larger, cosmopolitan cities, some large shops will stay open. But the siesta still underlines the laid-back rhythm in Spain that carries on throughout the day.
Birthdays are joyous occasions world over, but in the Netherlands you’ll notice birthday traditions are a bit different. Family birthdays are usually low-key affairs where you can find guests sitting around in a circle of chairs, stuffing cake and passing around a plate of sausage and cheese. Beyond congratulating the birthday boy or girl, it is also compulsory to go around and congratulate the other members of their family. So many hand shakes, kisses, and congratulations will be shared between the attendees, you’ll almost feel it’s everybody’s birthday!
When entering a person’s home in the presence of an elder, it is customary to be blessed by the elder. The older person will either put out their hand above your head automatically, or you can request it by saying, “mano po”– ‘mano’ signifying hand and ‘po’ being a form of respect. The ritual is to press your head or forehead on the elder’s hand, a gesture similar to ‘salim’, performed towards elders and teachers in neighbouring Islamic cultures of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Did you know that you speak Finnish, or at least one word for sure? Sauna! The deeply rooted custom of sweating with friends and family in a heated wooden room is a Finnish favourite you can’t escape when visiting. If travelling for business, being invited to the sauna after negotiation is not uncommon, and a rather good sign you’ve sealed the deal. And if you’re brave enough, forget the bathing suit – saunas are a non-judgemental zone where nudity is encouraged.
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On a more general level, if you’re visiting a religious monument around the world, bring a shawl and closed-toe shoes just in case. Some establishments require covering up, while others might require removing your shoes altogether. Respecting these gestures are essential if you don’t want to shock or disrespect those around you. And remember to stay curious! These rules are your key to fully immersing yourself in the local culture and having fun learning new things in new places. No matter what country you’re in, don’t hesitate to ask for advice on local customs, it could save you a load of embarrassment and might even flatter your host for wanting to learn more about their culture.