While most of us spend a considerable amount of time planning which tourist attractions to visit and what sort of food we’d like to try when we go abroad, how many of us actually take the time to research the local culture and how much it differs from our own? While cultural differences can be fascinating, too many tourists do not pay enough attention to local custom and end up causing offence or even alarm to their host country’s citizens. Here are some cultural clashes to take into consideration when planning a trip abroad.
We probably don’t think much about our hand gestures while out and about in the UK, but in other countries our hands can sometimes convey something very different to what we would imagine. Sticking your thumb up to show you’re pleased is the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at someone if you’re in Thailand, while in Iraq and Iran this gesture is actually considered obscene. Holding your palm up towards someone to say ‘stop’ is an insult in Greece where it harks back to a time when shackled criminals would have excrement smeared in their face, and crossing your fingers in Vietnam may cause you embarrassment as the Vietnamese see this as resembling female genitals.
While we all know to be careful what we eat abroad, it also pays to take note of how we eat. Clearing your plate is a no-no in any Asian country no matter how hungry you are, as it indicates your host hasn’t provided you with enough food. Many of us shy away from chopsticks for fear of throwing our dinner over ourselves, but there is in fact a plethora of etiquette surrounding chopsticks including not sticking them upright in a bowl of rice, as this is a Japanese funeral rite for the recently deceased. It is also important to remember that alcohol is generally forbidden in Muslim countries and drinking alcohol or appearing intoxicated in a public place is illegal in many Islamic states.
Finally, holiday clothing choices need extra consideration when visiting some destinations. In Muslim countries showing flesh, especially if you are female, is extremely offensive and therefore shorts and bikinis in public are unacceptable. In Japan and other countries in the East it is customary to take off your shoes and hat when entering a temple or someone’s home so remember to take plenty of pairs of clean socks, and resting your foot on your knee and bearing your sole is an insult if you are in Singapore, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Thailand. There’s no need to be paranoid, it only takes a quick bit of research to make sure it’s only your tan lines that make you stand out from the locals.
Written by Francesca Caruana-Grima
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