We’ve all done it. Committed that embarrassing faux-pas and wished the ground would open up and swallow us whole. International travel can be full of those awkward moments, and taking the time to familiarize yourself with local customs can go a long way to making your trip more enjoyable.
Here are a few of the more common mistakes that Americans make when traveling abroad.
1. Excessive Haggling
Yes, negotiating a fair price is part of the shopping experience in many countries, but be reasonable. Getting angry, upset or rude isn’t part of the bargain. Keep a sense of perspective and don’t go overboard, especially if you’re buying something that’s only worth a few dollars. Everyone has to make a living, and if you feel like you’re being charged too much, just walk away.
2. Not Knowing Where to Put Your Feet
If you’re traveling in Asia, make sure you understand the complicated etiquette around feet and footwear. Always take your shoes off when you’re entering someone’s house, and look for signs that tell you to take them off when you’re going into many public places as well. Showing the soles of your feet to other people is bad manners, so keep both of them on the floor. Don’t point at anything with your feet and for that matter, avoid pointing with your fingers as well.
3. Taking Pictures Without Permission
Always ask before you take someone’s picture. It’s considered extremely rude in most cultures to snap photos of the locals without permission, so take the time to be polite. And don’t be surprised if you’re asked for a few coins in return, especially if your subject is in traditional dress or performing an unusual task.
4. Turning Your Nose Up at Food
If you’re visiting another country, you’re going to be eating very differently from the way you do at home – so cope. “International cuisine” in the US rarely tastes like the real thing, and you’re going to be constantly surprised by the presentation and flavors of foods you thought you were familiar with. Take a deep breath and sample whatever you’ve got on your plate. It’s not going to kill you, unless you’ve ordered Fugu in Japan from a chef who hasn’t been specially trained to cook blowfish.
5. Church or Temples Are Sacred Places
Okay, maybe you’re not off-gassing, but respecting sacred places is an absolute must when you’re traveling. Keep in mind that lots of popular tourist destinations are also places of worship. You may need to cover your head or shoulders, and should lower your voice to a respectful level. Watch for rules on taking photos, and be aware that others may be engaged in quiet prayer or meditation.
6. Carrying Too Much Stuff
Even if you’re on a world adventure, you don’t need to act like you’re preparing for the zombie apocalypse. You’re going to irritate travel companions, fellow tourists, bus drivers and everyone else you bump into with your multiple bags, electronics and excessive layers of clothing. If you’re out on a day trip, take one small bag for essentials and leave the rest in your hotel room.
7. Invading Personal Space
There’s an invisible barrier that expands and narrows across differing cultures, so be aware of not standing too close when you’re asking for directions. In some cultures, touching and hugging complete strangers is normal and sweet, while in other places that kind of friendliness will get you arrested. Err on the side of caution, keeping a courteous distance and your hands to yourself.
And probably, take time to prepare yourself and do a little research before you visit a place that’s full of culture and you’re planning for immersion. Be aware of their laws and regulations even and most especially the weird ones because ignorance of the law, excuses no one as the famous saying would say.
You’ll avoid most etiquette mistakes if you are attentive, polite, and follow the lead of others. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and know that most innocent transgressions will be forgiven. One more thing. Learn to apologize in the local language, just in case.