Traveling abroad? Remember these 8 ‘unspoken rules’ during international adventures

If you are so fortunate as to travel internationally, your excursions will be both more memorable and meaningful if, in advance, you familiarize yourself with some basic knowledge of the cultures you visit. That may mean the etiquette of a host nation or different regions within a single country – people in the east may be very different from those in the west, for example. Here are some unspoken “rules” to guide you on your journey.

1. Familiarize yourself with the greetings of your destinations before you arrive

Wherever you travel, it’s helpful to understand the basics are that society. Make a friend of tools like the Cultural Atlas. Let’s take a look at traveling through Germany:

  • Greetings generally differ in formality depending on whether a German knows the other person well or not.
  • The most common greeting is a handshake with direct eye contact.
  • Men usually greet women first and wait for them to extend their hand.
  • Close friends may hug to greet, and younger people may kiss one another on the cheek.

2. Tip appropriately

The practice of tipping varies widely between cultures, so check on the appropriate way to handle the check before you leave the table. Better yet, check on the practices when you’re choosing an establishment. In North America, 15 to 20 percent on a restaurant bill is expected, but tipping in some countries is discouraged, as it is in Japan. In some places, the gratuity is included on the bill. For other locations, however, you’re expected to tip bathroom attendants but not servers. Your hotel concierge is a valuable resource for how-to on tipping, according to The Discoverer Blog.

tipping jar money
(Photo by Sam Dan Truong on Unsplash)

3. Learn the language

You’ll be doing yourself (and everyone around you) a great service to learn and use the local language, even if it’s just a few phrases. No attempt to use the language could mark you by some locals as an ignorant tourist with a sense of entitlement. The local people often perceive it as though you think everyone should know enough English to make your traveling easier. Knowing how to say “good morning” and “thank you” in the local language show your appreciation for the host nation’s culture. That’s especially true in the more rural areas and the smaller shops. Laugh at yourself about your terrible pronunciation and ask local people to help you with it.

Just as, if not more, important than what to say is what not to say. Swearing and near-swearing is at best inconsiderate and can get you thrown out of a place or even arrested in certain places. Also, do not joke about having drugs or weapons. 

4. Dine with the manners of the region

You’ll be expected to eat your rice with chopsticks when you’re in China. Within the culture of Morocco many don’t bother with utensils at all but use terry cloth “napkins” the size of bed sheets and their fingers to eat. You can ask the person who seats you about table manners or look around the room to follow the locals’ lead. You can also ask your hotel concierge for suggestions and dining recommendations.

5. Bargaining

Shoppers are expected to bargain in the big, open-air markets and in the street stalls of Asia, South and Central America, as we do here at flea markets, antique malls, and yard sales. You may enjoy an energetic haggle but remember that the vendors support their families selling their wares. This is another time when a hotel concierge can be a big help in getting a sense about how much and when bargaining is appropriate. In brick and mortar, retail-type stores, bargaining is inappropriate — the price listed is the price.

Group of People In A Street Market
Photo by Krisztina Papp from Pexels

6. Dress appropriately

Before leaving home, familiarize yourself with the clothing of your host nations. You’ll also need this information early to pack appropriately. Customs vary widely, as does the weather. Many places of religious observance have strict rules regarding dress and travelers are expected to comply as well.

Often, temples, churches, and mosques will require your shoulders and knees to be covered, so pack a light sweater or shawl for warm summer days to cover up before you enter. Temples throughout Asia might also ask you to remove your shoes before entering. Even if your itinerary doesn’t include places of religious observance, show your respect for the local culture by dressing appropriately.

Additionally, the weather when you arrived at your local airport may not be the same as it is at your destination overseas. Studying the local forecast before packing could save you from buying new threads abroad.

wearing a backpack in an airport
(Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash)

7. Photo memories

The ease of taking high quality images of your destinations has led to many travelers not knowing when and where to practice some self-restraint. Many photos you don’t want to do without are also available for purchase at a gift shop on or close to the premises or can be purchased online.

In Japan, you will be limited to photographing exteriors; taking photos inside temples is prohibited, or at least will meet with stern disapproval. Some cultures believe that the lens captures the soul, so demonstrate your respect for the culture by asking for permission before photographing people. In locations with less-regulated traffic, stopping in the road for a few quick photos can be extremely dangerous. Don’t miss light-hearted fun or savoring meaningful moments because you’re trying to frame the best angle on your smartphone.

8. Pack your sense of humor

No matter where you go, smiles and laughter are universal, so remember to have a good time!

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About the Author

Dr. Faith Coleman

Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer

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