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With every new place we go, we make an effort to learn the do’s and don’ts (the cultural taboos) of the country and the culture. It’s not always easy, navigating seamlessly through the cultural customs and taboos of a new place, but it’s usually never as bad as you would initially think. We tried hard to follow the cultural customs of the diverse ethnic groups in Malaysia but weren’t always able to prevent our natural gestures and tendencies from coming out.
Most people are understanding, willing to help correct you when you get something wrong or do something out of place but every so often, you end up breaking a custom you either didn’t know about or completely forgot about, and find yourself in an awkward situation. Take Shawn & Katie, The Lucky Couple Abroad’s, experience in Singapore that they shared with us:
Singapore is notorious for its strict laws on chewing gum, smoking, and littering so before we went, we did some research in hopes of not offending anyone. We went for a meal at one of the famous Hawker Stand Centres, and sat down at an empty table with our delicious Indian food. A minute after sitting down, a group of Singaporean women came up to us and told us that they had reserved that table. We were confused, but moved to another table quietly. We were slightly embarrassed, and still confused, when a women sitting nearby told us that Singaporeans place packets of tissue paper on tables in food courts to reserve a table. We thought the tissues were provided by the Centre!
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Some Rules To Know Before You Go! Remember The Cultural Taboos!
We asked fellow travel bloggers about etiquette and cultural taboos from the different countries they’ve visited and to share their experiences and what they found were important rules to follow. If you’re heading to Singapore, you’re going to want to remember Shawn and Katie’s words, but if you’re headed to, or just plain interested in, Japan, Germany, Mongolia, Kenya, Poland, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Thailand or the UAE, you’re going to want to keep reading!
By Paula and Gordon of Contented Traveller
Understanding Japanese etiquette is quite difficult, and despite visiting there annually for a long time, we are still discovering more and more about these codes of behaviour.
Shoes. You need to remove your shoes whenever you enter a house and many cafes and restaurants too, especially if you are in the villages. There is a historical reason for this. The streets were muddy and dirty, and the Japanese houses had and have tatami mats, where they eat and also sleep. Bringing dirt in would have been unhygienic, and this custom continues. Tip, wear easy shoes to slip in and out of in Japan.
The etiquette of having an onsen. These are the wonderful hot water public baths, and there are many rules that need to be observed. You need to remove your shoes before entering the sex-segregated onsen, and then remove clothes in a specific area. You enter the onsen area and wash yourself thoroughly outside of the onsen itself. Then you rinse off completely, before entering. There are quite a few more rules to be observed before enjoying this experience. I still don’t get it right.
Slurping. Loudly slurping food, particularly ramen noodles. This is a way of showing enjoyment of the dish, so if you like it, raise the bowl to your mouth and slurp away. A small hint, if you are dining with Japanese people and eat everything on your plate, they will not feel that they have fed you enough and will continue to fill your plate. Ditto, sake – so beware and leave a little in your glass when you have had sufficient.
Japan may have many etiquette codes, and they really respect that visitors try to observe these.
By Annemarie of Travel on the Brain
Don’t jaywalk. If you want to experience the German death stare, practically the equivalent to a muggle avada kedavra spell when it comes to angry looks, then just stand at traffic lights when children are within a 500 metre vicinity. And start walking. You might even get a death threat thrown in there for good measure. Of course, while the children are watching and listening. It is funny how the kids might not even have seen it but adults will draw total attention to such a ‘crime’ (you could get your licence revoked, too!). But having said all that, students or busy worker bees usually do not care very much (and are most likely late and in a rush).
Shake that thang. We Germans like to be practical and seize opportunities. This might be taken quite literally when meeting people, especially in a work environment. A firm hand shake is the way forward. The older or higher in rank men are, the more bone crushing it gets, in my experience. Women usually have a softer grip and struggle a lot with that in job interviews as a solid hand shake is seen as powerful and self confident. But nobody likes a bone crusher either.
Don’t come close. If you like to play a prank on a German and create a very uncomfortable situation, try sitting next to them. This goes particularly in places where there are enough seats available (and those are hopefully far away). To add a little more awkwardness, why not start talking and puting on a big grin? You will be taken as positively lunatic and can slowly watch the German squirm in their seat, racking their brain to get out of the situation while still retaining the dignity of both people involved. They will usually mumble some excuse to themselves and less than subtly sit somewhere else a little bit further off.
By Jub of Tiki Touring Kiwi
As we bumped along Mongolia’s Gobi Desert in our Russian van for hours a day we would see just a handful of people before experiencing the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle ourselves at night. The nomadic lifestyle is very unique, with these three rules crucial:
Never let meat go to waste. With minimal fridges and freezers in the Gobi Desert, a large kill will not last long in the summer heat so you give some to your neighbours (the Gobi Desert brings a new meaning to neighbours).
Do not do your toilet business near fence lines. Not all families have squat facilities so the one rule in place is never to do your number ones or twos near the fence line where people walk; the rest of the desert is fair game.
Do not put rubbish in the stove. The stove inside the nomadic gers (yurts) provides warmth and the ability to cook, therefore it is sacred.
Mongolia is a truly unique landscape and the nomads live a very different lifestyle compared to the rest of the world.
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By Michaela of AweInclusive
Kenya is a spectacular country with expansive cultural, geographical, and biological diversity. And while this country is home to over 40 tribes, there are a few customs that are shared across the region and learning them will add to the enjoyment of your trip.
Religious freedom is built into Kenya’s constitution and you will notice various religious facilities during your trip.
Although the handshake is a common greeting in this country, note that Muslim men and women do not shake hands with the opposite sex. “Jambo,” which means, “How are you” is the common greeting.
When using names, it’s best to address people using a title and surname until a personal relationship is developed. While greetings are mostly indifferent in the large city where I live, I learned to take my time when greeting Kenyans because rushing this gesture is a form of disrespect.
Dining is formal at many locations and diners are expected to wash their hands before eating. At some restaurants, you’ll even notice wash bins near the tables. Plan to eat everything on your plate. At a recent meal with Kenyans, we had a meal of fish and ugali. I thought I’d finished, but my Kenyan host urged me to eat the brain of the fish. According to him, it makes people smarter. I obliged and it was actually quite tasty. If you are offered food or drink from a Kenyan, it is impolite to decline.
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By Ania & Jon of Hitch-Hikers Handbook
Poland is still quite a traditional and formal society and good manners are very important to us.
Firstly, if you visit a Polish friend you should never walk into the house with your shoes on. This is very important to the Poles and if you break this social norm you will be considered very rude.
Secondly, if you are a man and you go through any door (enter or exit a building, a lift or any form of transport) you should never walk in before all the women around you do and it’s good manners to open the door for them. This can sometimes lead to comical or awkward situations especially in lifts as men would refuse to leave before the women even if that means that the ladies have to squeeze past them in very confined places.
Another thing you should keep in mind is that you should NOT say ‘thank you’ if somebody offers you something before this thing arrives. Let me give you an example. If your host asks you if you would like to have some tea and you say ‘thank you’ (dziekuje) before the tea is made, this will be understood as ‘no, thank you’ (nie, dziekuje) and you will never see the drink. The best thing to do in this situation is to answer ‘yes, please’ (poprosze) and say ‘thank you’ after the tea is brought to you.
Similarly, if you are in a restaurant or bar and you pay your bill, you shouldn’t say ‘thank you’ to the waiter before they bring you the change as it would be understood as ‘keep the change’. You can thank them after they bring you all the money back and leave the tip on the table if you please.
Furthermore, you should never invite Polish people to your birthday party if you are not willing to pay for their drinks. It is a custom for us that if you want to see people at your party you should pay for their beverages (or at least the first drink for each person if you invite them out) or buy the alcohol if you throw a party at your place. Likewise, it would be considered very rude if you made your Polish friends pay for their drinks at your wedding party. Polish parties are great, as a guest you always drink for free!
Lastly, the majority of Polish people are Catholics and the person of John Paul II is a very important one. He is considered not only a religious figure but also somebody who helped bring down Communism and one of the most important individuals in Polish history. So you should avoid insulting him in public or sometimes even joke about him. Just be careful what you say as you may easily hurt people’s feelings, it’s a delicate topic.
By Laura & Nick of Savored Journeys
One of the customs in Argentina that will affect you the most as a tourist is the acceptable time to eat dinner, which is probably quite a bit later than you eat back home. In order to avoid embarrassment, you should plan to eat no earlier than 9 pm. Actually, 10 or 11pm would be better.
We love drinking wine with our meals in Argentina, and when we do, it’s important to remember that pouring our own wine, especially with the left hand, or while grasping the neck of the bottle are all considered rude and inconsiderate. You should always pour for your friends and allow them to pour for you.
If you’re in Argentina for any time at all, you’ll likely make some new friends and maybe even be invited in for dinner or an impromptu gathering. Be aware that it’s rude to just wave and say goodbye when you leave. Friends, and even acquaintances, will expect a kiss on the cheek both when you arrive and when you leave.
By Martina of Pimp My Trip
In Italy, the galateo is a set of behavioral norms that people should always follow, even if a lot of italians don’t know it!
Italians love food and, in Italy, the galateo should always be applied when eating.
Don’t eat “pasta” with a spoon! Moreover, it is not a polite thing to cut “spaghetti” or any other kind of long “pasta” with a knife, either. When you bring spaghetti to your mouth do not “suck” them in. There is an exception, though: sucking is allowed with oriental noodles, since they are usually served in a hot soup.
Never ask a woman’s age! If she is quite witty she will tell you the truth, otherwise she will come back to you with a prickly joke for an answer.
When you are guest and want to come with a gift, never give umbrellas as a present, since they bring bad luck. To give an umbrella as a present is a kind of like wishing rain. But there is of course a remedy to such bad luck and that is to give a little coin, like one or two cents, as an exchange gift.
By Sally of Sally Around The World
While there are many customs in Thailand, most Thai people are used to tourist and can be very tolerant of cultural errors. The below, however are taken very seriously.
Take your shoes off. By far the custom I kept unintentionally breaking while in Thailand was the ‘no shoes inside rule’. Whether you are entering a temple or someone’s home, you must remove your shoes before going inside. This is even the case for shops and business. If you forget, the reaction can range from an evil death stare to being chased out of the building. Yes, I have had them both happen. It is unhygienic to wear shoes indoors and as Buddhists do a lot of kneeling and sitting in the lotus position or cross legged, they need the floors to be clean.
Do not touch peoples heads or show the soles of your feet. The head is considered spiritually the highest part of the body, and the feet the lowest. Touching someone’s head is seen as disrespectful, even little children’s. Although I did not feel the need to go around patting people on the head, I did cringe every time I saw a westerner with their feet up on the table.
Respect the King. Disrespecting and even criticizing the king is a criminal offence in Thailand. The Thais love their monarchy. You will see their picture in every business and in every house. Thailand has some of the world’s toughest lese majeste (injured majesty) laws protecting its extremely popular monarch. The national anthem is played at 8am, 6pm and before a movie in the cinema and you are expected to stand. The first time I went to see a movie and everyone stood up, I was very confused. I did actually end up enjoying it. I was moved by the Thai’s sense of pride and loyalty to a monarchy they love so much and who clearly loves them.
Standing on a coin or a note with the king’s face on it is seen as an insult to an image of the king. In 2011 a US citizen was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for writing a blog post seen as disrespectful and posting a link to an unauthorised biography of the king.
By Inma and Jose of A World to Travel
If you are lucky enough to spend some time in our country, please remember:
We take our time. Don’t rush a Spaniard unnecessarily. It doesn’t mean we are lazy or slow, we just have a different life philosophy where relationships and enjoying our everyday come before work.
We get close. Shaking hands is only a custom for business and between boys. If you are introducing yourself to a Spanish girl, two cheek kisses will follow. Also, please do not get intimidated by a closer than usual personal space when talking (aloud, by the way).
Respect our schedules. Shops usually open 10-14/17-20h, having breakfast at 11 is accepted and dinner can be served till at least midnight. That’s how we roll.
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
By Jennifer of Made All The Difference
Don’t eat or drink in public during daylight in Ramadan. It is against the law during this time and could get you arrested. If you are arrested during Ramadan, enjoy your jail cell. You will be there until the end of Ramadan.
Dress appropriately in public. The UAE isn’t the place to wear short, tight, and low-cut clothing. While not illegal in most of the UAE, it is disrespectful and makes you a target for staring.
Don’t get drunk, especially in public. Islam does not permit drinking. The UAE tolerates drinking alcohol in the hotels and private non-Islamic residences but nowhere else. It isn’t unheard of for taxi drivers to drop drunk passengers off at the police station.
Don’t ask for pork in a restaurant. Islam considers pigs to be unclean. They do not eat them or touch them.
Our Encounter with Cultural Taboos – Do Your Reseach
We recently wrote about what not to do in Malaysia which gives a good look at the cultural customs and taboos of that country as well. It’s one place where different cultures combine and often travellers can be confused as to what exactly you should, or shouldn’t, do!
Have you ever run into different customs while travelling? Had an awkward experience when you weren’t aware of what you should or shouldn’t do in a country? Comment below and tell us about it!
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