Customs Around the World: What You Should Know

Customs around the world are often different from those we're used to. To avoid mishaps while traveling internationally, it helps to learn what is considered polite – and what isn’t.
Customs around the globe are often different from those we’re used to. To avoid mishaps while traveling internationally, it helps to learn what is considered polite – and what isn’t.

A visitor to Poland from Montreal, Canada was embarrassed after she admired the dishes on which a resident of Krakow served her dinner. Her hostess insisted that the traveler take the entire set of tableware home as a gift.

The traveler avoided doing so by saying that it would be too heavy to transport in her suitcase.

A man from Miami, Florida riding on a subway in London was surprised when he accidentally jostled a British passenger standing nearby — and that man apologized to the American.

Customs Around the World

Customs around the globe are often different from those we’re used to. Behavior that’s normal and acceptable at home can be perplexing, or even insulting, elsewhere. 

To avoid such mishaps while traveling internationally, it helps to learn what is considered polite – and what isn’t.

If the Canadian woman in Poland had done her homework, she would have known that admiring someone’s possession in that country may prompt the person to offer the item as a gift.

Many people are aware that good manners are very much alive and well in Great Britain. If you accidentally bump into someone, it’s considered polite to say that you’re sorry – even if the encounter isn’t your fault.

The challenge can begin even before a trip gets underway. It’s natural to pack clothes that are casual and comfortable. However, residents of some countries aren’t used to seeing visitors wearing shorts, flip flops and other attire that would be at home on a beach.

That’s especially true when entering a place of worship or another site that is considered sacred.

Customs around the world - In many cultures, greetings include a kiss on the check, sometimes two or three.
In many cultures, greetings include a kiss on the check, sometimes two or three. Photo by Kar Tr

Greeting with a Kiss

In some lands, a meet and greet often is accompanied by a kiss. People in Argentina may give a cheek kiss, while in Brazil, friends might exchange as many as three kisses on the cheek.

Depending upon where you are in France, the practice may call for one cheek kiss in the town of Brest, two in Toulouse and up to four in Nantes.

Customs around the world - In Germany, it's considered polite to shake hands with everyone who is there, including children.
In Germany, it’s considered polite when entering a room to shake hands with everyone who is there, including children.

Greetings in Germany and Japan

The custom of shaking hands reaches its pinnacle in Germany, where formality often reigns. When entering a room, it’s considered polite to shake hands with everyone who is there, including children.

On the other hand, bowing is the tradition in Japan when greeting or thanking someone, and it’s customary to bow lower if the other person is older or has a higher social status.

Some mishaps involve the hands and feet. In a number of Middle Eastern countries, the left hand may be used for bodily hygiene and is considered to be unclean.

As a result, shaking hands with your left hand is insulting.

In some cultures, it's offensive to show the soles of your feet.
In some cultures, it’s offensive to show the soles of your feet. Photo by Paul Hakimata

It’s the feet that can cause a problem for visitors to various Arab, Muslim, Hindu and some other countries.

Because the feet are the lowest part of the body, they may be considered less than clean, so showing the soles of your shoes to another person also may be taken as an insult.

Another helpful hint involves when to arrive after being invited to dinner.

In the United States, it’s usually acceptable to arrive a few minutes after the appointed time, which is considered to be “fashionably late.”

In Germany, leaving other guests waiting is seen as a sign that you believe your time is more important than theirs.

On the other hand, in some Latin American cultures, no guests are expected to arrive at the precise time they were invited to a dinner party.

The practices that travelers encounter throughout the world include the entire alphabet of nations. Australia is one of several countries where passengers in taxicabs often share the front seat with the driver.

To climb into the back of the vehicle as most people in the U.S. do would be considered snobby.

Table manners are very important in Norway, where even a sandwich may be eaten with a knife and fork.  In Japan and South Korea, tipping is not customary.

Workers there take pride in doing their job well, and don’t believe that they need the added incentive of a tip.

In Russia, China, Thailand and the Philippines, an empty plate after a meal may be taken as an indication that you were not served enough food.

You may have to leave a bit as a signal that you’re satisfied.

When exchanging business cards in Japan, give and receive the cards using both hands, and ensure the card is turned towards the receiver,
When exchanging business cards in Japan, give and receive the cards using both hands, and ensure the card is turned towards the receiver. Photo by Stuart Jenner

Business Customs

Minding one’s manners in another country can be even more important when traveling for business. Demonstrating that you took the time to learn the local customs may help to make the sale or close the deal.

For example, business people in some countries who share a meal with a potential customer often discuss personal matters before they turn the conversation to work.

The local host may chat about his family, ask about yours and find out if you have any hobbies in common. Only then will the discussion turn to business.

In Finland, business is often discussed in the sauna. Photo by Robert Kneschke
In Finland, business is often discussed in the sauna. Photo by Robert Kneschke

One of the more enjoyable, if unusual, examples of mixing pleasure with business takes place in Finland, where relaxing in a sauna is part of the way of life for many people.

It’s not unusual for a meeting or sales presentation to be followed by an invitation to share a sauna with the host. If so, that may indicate that the discussion of business went well.

Whether planning a trip for business or pleasure, taking time to do a bit of advance research about the way things are done can add to the enjoyment, and avoid making mistakes.

You may search for information on the Internet or contact the tourist bureau of your destination.

Author Bio: After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries around the world, and writing about what he sees, does and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education, and claims he still has a lot to learn. He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won a number of writing awards.

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Janna Graber

Janna Graber is an award-winning American travel journalist and current editor of Go World Travel Magazine. Since moving to Austria at age 19 for college, she's been in love with world travel, and has covered destinations around the globe for more than 55 newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of three travel anthology books, including "A Pink Suitecase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel".
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