Bowing in ChinaTo avoid any unwanted ‘surprises’ during a trip, it’s best to make sure everything is taken care of before you leave. But in addition to booking a place to stay and making sure you have a current passport, there’s one more thing you should add to your checklist: An understanding of the local culture.

Now I’m not just talking about common courtesy, saying please and thank you. I’m talking about understanding the customs and unwritten rules of a culture before traveling to an unfamiliar part of the world. Not only will this allow you to show your respect for the locals, but it’ll also help you further understand the ways in which others live their lives. You’ll also end up blending in a little more, breaking stereotypes, and making new friends all at once—which is a perk of travel that money can’t buy.

So what’s the best way to learn about another culture before embarking to a foreign country? Research, research, research. Fortunately, the handy-dandy Internet is packed with all kinds of information about cultures from all over the world, so be sure to take advantage of it.

But for now, here are some things you should pay close attention to:

  • Gestures. Certain types of body language can have a variety of meanings in different countries; what may be considered positive in one region may actually be negative in another, so it’s best to be aware of these gestures to avoid accidentally communicating something with your body. For example, a thumbs-up in America means “good,” but it can be extremely offensive in countries in the Middle East. In Greece, an upward nod of the head means “no” and tilting the head to the side means “yes.”
  • Hospitality. In many countries, you can deeply offend a person if you don’t accept a gift from them, such as food, a place to stay, or help. Expressing admiration for something, such as a necklace, may even incline a person to offer it as a gift. If you refuse, you can potentially offend the person, but if you accept you may need to give a gift in return.
  • Dress code. When visiting a foreign country, it’s best to dress according to the local norms. In many places, women are expected to dress moderately—more so than men. And in certain regions, exposing certain parts of the body may be considered offensive. For example, many Muslim countries consider the back of the neck to be extremely provocative.
  • Eating etiquette. In some cultures, leaving a little bit of food on your plate indicates that the host was so generous you couldn’t finish your meal. But in other countries, you’re supposed to eat everything. Additionally, it would be abnormal to eat with your left hand in some developing countries.
  • Public Displays of Affection (PDA). Even if you’re not expressing as much PDA as a high school-aged couple, you may need to avoid even a peck on the cheek in some countries. Anything beyond holding hands may be perceived as abnormal and even rude in many parts of the world.
  • Learn when you’re there. The best way to discover and acclimate to a new culture is to immerse yourself in the local area as much as possible. Dine where the locals go, learn traditional dances, meet new people, and ask questions. It’s the best way to show your respect and learn the norms in a foreign country.
  • Have an open mind. The best way to do all of the above? Be open-minded to doing and trying new things. You’ll get the most out of your trip when you do.

Photo from Wikipedia.


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