One of the best reasons to travel is to experience the quirks, peculiarities and fascinating every-day normalities of life far from our own comfort zones. Such differences can be measured in tastes, language, interpersonal communication, codes of social conduct and simple gestures. Though blending seamlessly into a foreign culture is next to impossible for the short-term traveller, one can make an honest effort to adjust. Do some homework ahead of departure to prevent embarrassing faux pas.
The U.K.-based International Centre for Responsible Tourism has developed a code of ethics for tourists that begins with the suggestion that we “travel in a spirit of humility and with a genuine desire to learn more about the people of your host country.” Better this than bumbling in and expecting things to be done as they are back home.
Gestures can be very different from one country to the next, as the late author and etiquette specialist Roger Axtell outlined in tremendous detail in his book The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. In the U.K., offering up an inverted peace sign with your palm facing inward is the equivalent of flipping the bird here at home. Sticking your thumb out (as in hitching a ride) is an equally rude gesture in Nigeria. In much of Latin America, the North American gesture for “come here” – hand palm-up with index finger curling in and out – denotes a romantic “come hither” that may bring unwanted attention.
Behaviours, too, may differ. In India and Muslim countries, the long-standing tradition is to always use your right hand for eating and the left when using the toilet. In many Asian countries, locals never touch the top of another person’s head (considered the highest or holiest part of the body), or point their feet (the lowest part) at others. In Japan, people cover their mouths when laughing and greet each other with a short bow, though the western tradition of shaking hands is becoming more commonplace there and in China. Let local citizens make the first move and then mirror them with awkward good grace.
Other etiquette differences centre around money. For instance, while tipping is good manners in North America, it’s often unnecessary in European countries, where waiters might roll their eyes at a diner who slaps down the Canadian-standard 15 per cent – especially if the bill expressly notes “service inclus.” Though rounding up by a couple of euros for excellent service is usually fine.
Language is a starting point. It’s always wise to learn a few key phrases that can be trotted out in everyday situations, even if the person you’re interacting with has a smattering of English at his or her command. Saying “per favore” and “grazie” to a gelato clerk in Florence will earn more cultural merit points than “please” and “thank you,” even if you mangle the pronunciation. Again, it’s the effort that counts, according to Mary Murray Bosrock, author of European Business Customs & Manners. Either carry a pocket-sized glossary of key foreign words while learning the basics or choose from a range of translation apps for your smartphone. Mastering “hello,” “goodbye” and a short list of numbers when exchanging money is essential.
Wherever you are destined, there will surely be a book available that provides clear and concise tips on how to bridge the culture gap. The leading travel guides all dispense valuable insights into cultural norms in their “need to know,” “before you go” and “survival guide” pages. Fodor’s Italy, for instance, notes that strangers traditionally shake hands, though new friends can exchange air kisses – first on the left cheek, then the right. Bare arms and shoulders are not welcome in European churches, so carry a pull-on sweater when sightseeing.
Finally: “There is one form of human communication that everyone understands: the smile,” according to Axtell. Sure enough, a toothy grin combined with a humble attitude and eager curiosity are great starting points for travelling Canadians.