We all know cultures are different from each other. But what are those differences? The first time we travel to a new country, we don’t always know what we don’t know.
What we may consider “common sense” may not be common – or make much sense – in another culture. By simply acting “naturally,” we could actually embarrass ourselves – or worse: offend someone.
Recognizing cultural differences is the first step toward understanding and respecting the people in other countries. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to detect these differences on our own.
It would be easy, for example, to walk right past the pile of shoes at the door to a temple, if you’d never encountered a culture where it’s common to remove shoes before entering a dwelling or place of worship. Even though you had the clue that everyone else had taken off their shoes, it could be easily missed if you’d only ever known a world where it’s no big deal to wear shoes indoors. You would waltz right in without knowing you were committing a serious faux pas.
Another example is from our training as Peace Corps Volunteers when we first arrived to Jamaica. Our trainers informed us that it was considered rude to eat while out and about on the street. This is something we would have never figured out on our own. It just wouldn’t have occurred to us to find a spot out of sight to finish the lunch we bought from a shop, if we hadn’t been told. We probably would have gotten some weird looks, which may or may not have registered, and we certainly wouldn’t have made a positive first impression with the community.
All that to say: if you want to be an intentional, responsible traveler (and I know you do!), there are a few important things to find out about a country before traveling there for the first time.
Table of Contents
How to find cultural information about a country you haven’t visited
Honestly, we don’t always research all of the things we’re going to mentionbefore we travel to a new country. But they’re all things we have on our radar.
An important skill for travelers is observation. As soon as we arrive, we begin observing the behavior, clothing, and habits of the locals. Local people become the models for our own behavior, to an extent. (Note that fellow tourists don’t count as good models because they might not be aware of cultural norms themselves.)
So observation upon arrival is key to collecting information about cultural norms. But you have to know what to look for and it can only get you so far. Again: you don’t know what you don’t know.
That’s why a little pre-trip research can go a long way. The site everyculture.com is a great place to start. Or do a web search for “[name of country] culture and etiquette.”
Or try the Culture Smart series. These are guide books specifically focused on the customs and culture of each country.
Cultural customs and etiquette to learn about a country
Wearing appropriate dress in a different culture is incredibly important for showing respect. This is the most common faux pas I see Western tourists committing.
People don’t realize that clothing can communicate unintended meanings in other cultures. In many parts of Asia, bare shoulders or knees (tank tops, shorts, short skirts) are strictly forbidden in temples. Not covering up in sacred sites is seen as offensive and disrespectful.
But beyond that, many countries have a more conservative standard of dress in general. Sometimes wearing revealing clothing is not just seen as unusual. Showing even a little bit of thigh, or a neckline that dips below the collarbones, or a spaghetti strap tank top, may be considered promiscuous – read: literally associated with prostitution.
We spoke with a young woman in Thailand who was shocked to see a female tourist riding through town in a bikini. We saw tourists wearing swimsuits in town a few times in Jamaica, too, and it was obviously causing a stir. Some tourists are so focused on their own vacation that they act like they own the whole place. Sure, swimsuits are fine at the beach. And maybe in Hawaii, it’s more common to walk around without a shirt on. But in most cultures, swimsuits are not appropriate in public.
This is not a matter of not caring what other people think or being true to yourself. It’s a matter of respect.
Find out what type of clothing is appropriate for the different situations you’ll be in – walking around town, visiting important sites, any cultural events, etc. Observe what is commonly worn by respectable locals in your age group. Do they wear shorts? Do they wear sleeveless shirts? Do they dress more formally for certain occasions?
Taking time to learn at least a few key words of the local language can go a long way in building respect and trust in a new culture. Some top phrases are: thank you, excuse me, please, yes, and no.
The more of a language you know, the better you’ll understand your environment, be able to get around independently, and it could really help you out in sticky situations. Knowing the language also opens the door to deeper connections with locals.
These days, Google Translate can be a big help, too. We’ve had full conversations with Vietnamese homestay hosts, just passing a smart phone back and forth. Or we’ll pull up the translation of “not spicy please” when we’re at a restaurant.
One caveat with language: it’s not always appropriate to speak the local language. In the travel world, we hear this as a universal truth, but it isn’t. This was the case in our Peace Corps host country, Jamaica, where both English and Patwa were commonly spoken. In a way, Jamaican Patwa is like Ebonics in the States. It was very helpful to understand, but when to speak it (as a foreigner) is complicated. Just be aware and avoid crossing into cultural appropriation.
Another time when we’ve gotten resistance about language was in the Netherlands. There, pretty much everyone speaks English. Usually it’s polite to ask “Do you speak English?” in most places. In the Netherlands, this question was almost like asking, “Are you educated?” So find out what the societal norms are around their language and what they expect from visitors.
Along with the key phrases mentioned above, being able to greet locals in their own language is a nice gesture. Understanding the importance and customs involved with greetings is also important.
In Jamaica, our Peace Corps host country, greeting each person you encounter is a sign of respect. In Jamaican culture, it hardly mattered if you ever said the words “thank you,” but not greeting someone was immediately considered rude. In many African cultures, there is an elaborate greeting ritual with a series of questions that must be asked and answered before both parties can continue on their way.
Don’t forget about physical greetings, too. Find out if it’s appropriate to shake hands, hug, or kiss on the cheek. Often these norms vary based on how well you know the person you’re greeting, the genders of both people, and sometimes age as well.
Eating meals is a universal daily habit, so it’s no surprise that customs have evolved around food. We’ve all grown up eating a certain way – from the utensils we use to the location of our dining to who we’re eating with. Our way feels second nature to us, but in reality, there are hundreds of variations on how we humans eat.
In some cultures, women always eat separately from men. In others, the eldest must be the first to sit down at the table. In some cultures, each person dishes up their own plate with everything they want, while others share family-style and only take a little at a time from the common dishes. In some situations, it’s rude not to finish everything on your plate, while other places have a system of giving left overs to pigs or dogs.
Each culture has unwritten rules for what’s appropriate at the table. Some of these habits are easy to observe and follow, but it’s always wise to research food norms just in case some of the rules aren’t obvious.
We like to think that certain gestures, like a smile, are universal. And yes, smiling usually does communicate happiness and good will. But even a smile can be inappropriate in certain situations – like between men and women in cultures where genders do not intermingle.
Every-day gestures, like pointing with one finger or yawning without covering your mouth, can be seen as rude in certain cultures.
Hand motions can vary a lot, too. Motioning “come here” with the fingers facing up tends to be done in the West, while it’s usually palm down in the East. Also, a benign hand motion in one culture may translate into something offensive in another.
In this category as well is displays of affection. Appropriate physical touch and personal space vary from one culture to another. If you’re part of a couple, be sure to understand what gestures are acceptable in public. In Vietnam, for example, public displays of affection are frowned upon and even holding hands was rare to see among locals.
Interaction of Ethnic Groups, Classes, etc.
No country is homogenous. There are always different groups – racial, ethnic, socio-economic, etc. – and it can be really helpful to understand how these groups interact with each other. Is there any tension or hostility between groups? How is privilege and status assigned? How will people view and treat you, whether you’re inside or outside their group? What are appropriate ways to interact with the different groups?
If there are important things about these relationships that will affect your own interactions, you should be able to find them in a guidebook or the Everywhere Culture site. Otherwise, they’re mostly just things to keep an eye out for.
Finally, we always seem to end up googling “tipping norms in [country]” at our first meal out.
Being from the U.S., tipping servers at meals is an important supplement to their wage. But this is not the case everywhere. Sometimes tips are only left for outstanding service. Sometimes it’s a token amount, like $1 or $2, regardless of the price of meal. Sometimes tipping is not done at all and may even cause offense!
Be sure to look up the tipping norms for dining out as well as any other services you use on your travels.
Why is it important to pay the right price and tip appropriate amounts? Because when tourists overpay and overtip, it can seriously screw up the local economy – especially in less developed countries. If overpayment becomes a trend, it ends up inflating prices for the locals.
Cultural generalizations vs. Stereotypes
One final note as you’re looking up cultural information: While it’s helpful to learn from generalizations about other cultures, be sure not to use those generalizations as a stereotype. A cultural generalization is a tendency that the majority of people in the culture follow. This helps us anticipate how people will think and behave.
But each person is their own universe of complexity. We are all shaped by many factors, so a cultural norm may not apply to each individual. So never assume. Try to keep your mind open and avoid oversimplifying your categories for different people.
I hope this guide helps you become a cultural detective, seeking out the roots and rationale of different behaviors and attitudes you encounter abroad. Remember that cultural differences are deeply rooted in the society’s values and beliefs. Everyone considers their own customs as not just good and proper but natural and normal.
Be curious. Be fascinated. Learn as much as you can. And go enjoy turning strangers into friends around the world!
We’d love to hear from you, too. What are your experiences learning about new cultures as you travel? What cultural things do you find important to research before you visit a new country? Let us know in the comments.
You might also like:
5 Reasons Why Everyone Should Experience Living Abroad
Best Videos by Peace Corps Volunteers Around the World
Bonus: A Metaphorical Packing List for Living Overseas
The following tips are contributed by Karen Bortvedt. Karen was a long-term volunteer with Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Cambodia.
Large stuffed polar bear. Check.
While all of these things are important to have on the ‘must pack’ list when traveling intentionally or moving to a new culture, I think there are a few even more essential items that people should include on their lists.
From my perspective, the most important things to pack when traveling are an open mind and inquisitive heart.
By the same token, often times travelers bring a significant amount of unnecessary baggage. The most important thing many pack along, to the detriment of all they encounter, is a belief that there is only one ‘right’ way.
An Open Mind
Eat bugs? Sure! On a recent trip to the USA, I had the opportunity to share with a group of four and five year old munchkins all about life in Cambodia. One little girl said what most of you were likely thinking when you saw these pictures, “Why do they eat bugs? That’s GROOOOSSSS!”
My answer to her was, “You know how you eat fruit snacks here at school for snack? Do you like those?” (Yes, was of course, the answer.) “For kids in Cambodia, they grew up eating bugs just like you grew-up eating fruit snacks.”
Not the most eloquent summary of that buzz term cultural competency, but, for me, that really just means to keep an open mind. You will likely have opportunities to try and experience things you never even knew were possible.
Just as there are six questions we are all taught to include in every presentation, invitation, or essay, those are the six questions that lead us to learn about the new people and places we are encountering.
Inquire. Ask. Be respectful, but interested.
There is nothing we all love more than talking about ourselves, our culture, our way of living.
People are generally open to answering many questions.
Why do the students go to school in the morning one month and then switch to the afternoons the next month?* Why do you hold your hands in front of your chest when you meet some people and in front of your face when you greet others?** Why are there always tents with loud music in the streets?*** (If you’re curious about the answers, see below.)
The “Right” Way
Remember that saying, “When in Rome…”? We would all be better stewards of this world if we took this to heart when traveling or making new countries our homes.
It is important to accept, to some extent, the culture into which one enters and to not go with the explicit intent of changing it based on our agenda.
Here are just a few examples that I have witnessed:
1. Going to a culture where the native women do not usually wear shorts or tank tops? As a female guest, you, too, should follow that norm, regardless of your personal belief about acceptable dress. Or, going to a country where two piece bathing suits are the norm (as a friend recently explained in her experience moving to Brazil), time to exchange the swim-team suit for something that shows a little more skin.
2. Going to a Muslim country? Don’t pack a huge box with copies of the Tao Te Ching to distribute to those you meet. Do you show up to a friends house for dinner and tell them how to cook it?
Spiritual beliefs are usually deeply personal and tied to familial, cultural, and historical experiences. How would you react to someone telling you yours were all wrong and lies? I believe the psycho-social impact is not positive.
3. Do you make changes to every menu item like Sally? If you do not speak the native tongue of your server or that is not a cultural norm, don’t get upset when your food comes out just as it was listed on the menu.
In some cultures, it is the norm to have ‘made-to-order’ meals but in others, especially when there are language barriers, menu items have numbers by each one for a reason. It is not right or wrong to have a special-for-you meal, just a difference that needs to be respected.
The one caveat to this, in my mind, would be that one must consider: will conforming to a cultural norm be doing harm to myself, others, or the world?
Just because the host culture throws trash in the road does not mean you should conform and do the same thing… nor should you chastise strangers for the practice.
If locals drink the water from the tap or local stream, please don’t try it just to ‘fit in.’ You will learn about a whole new kind of culture, the one taken to a lab to diagnose your parasites.
* Because it, historically, rained in the afternoons, students switch the time they attend school or the morning class would have far more class time. When it rains, it is often impossible to get to and from school.
** The position of the hands varies as a sign of respect, greeting an equal status friend and greeting a monk are done differently.
*** Weddings and funerals are often held at the family’s house. Since homes are small a large tent, complete with electricity, will be erected in front of the house, often blocking the whole street. No permits are needed. There is just more traffic in wedding season, at times you can go for blocks unable to make a right hand turn as all the streets to the right are blocked by celebrations.
What do you think are essential internal items to bring along to a new culture? What is on your No Pack list?
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Michelle and her husband quit their traditional jobs in 2011 to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers. They have been location-independent digital nomads since 2014, running a freelance web services business while they explore new places. She is author of the book, An Intentional Travelers Guide to Unconventional Budget Accommodations: Creative Ways to Save Money on Transformational Travel. Her writing has also been featured on International Living, Transitions Abroad, Small Planet Studio, The Art of Non-Conformity, and more.