Cultural etiquette is what you call the codes of behavior that rule different cultures. Etiquette can be tricky and falling afoul of it can ruin a trip or worse, insult the very people you have traveled so far to meet.
A beautiful, endearing and public kiss in Paris won't be culturally acceptable in some societies (Philippe Milbault via Flickr CC)
Cultural etiquette dictates what you should or should not do in a given country or society but to understand cultures, you'll first have to learn about you.
Who are you and what are you bringing to a situation? What are your own values and assumptions? What are you comfortable with? How do you feel men should treat you? What are your limits when it comes to personal space? Do you tend to make eye contact when you talk to people? Are you punctual? Do you use your hands a lot when you talk? Do you always say what you mean?
How you answer these questions will dictate how you react to situations around you.
Take solo travel. Not all cultures think it's normal for women to travel alone, so we have learned to adjust.
In some societies, going solo makes women objects of pity - we're seen as women who haven't been able to find a man. As I traveled across Africa by myself the most common comment I heard was, "I'm sorry."
In other societies, women on their own may be considered fair game: if you're traveling alone, you must be 'easy'. Otherwise you would have a husband and he certainly wouldn't 'allow' you to travel solo. Remember, some people only know Western women from television; for all you know they may think all American women are like those on Desperate Housewives!
Galling as it may be to our independent Western souls, understanding cultural differences can help unravel these travel challenges and reduce your heart rate when people are excessively late, whistle as you walk by, or refuse to look you in the eye.
I travel a lot and I'm used to coming up against customs that don't work for me. Whether you're heading around the world or simply visiting a new country for the first time, coping with culture shock is bound to be part of your experience.
You might discover that...
Gestures can mean different things in different cultures (Nick Kenrick via Flickr CC)
Cultural etiquette may deal with serious issues, such as gender inequality or stereotypes, or with simpler things to do with meals or social and work lives, whose rules may leave you perplexed.
See how easy it could be to offend or be offended?
The big question is what to do about cultural differences, some of which I've written about elsewhere.
You have choices, but each has benefits and costs.
What do I do?
I start by researching the culture before I go, and then I tend to mix it up.
I try to be myself whenever I can, but where the situation demands it, I act in a culturally appropriate way. This is made a lot easier by my own background: born in Paris, brought up in Spain, studied in Canada, lived in Switzerland, had a Turkish father - this jumble of religions and cultures has helped make me adaptable. The Canadian in me shows up on time, while the Spaniard and Turk in me have a far more elastic notion of time.
Bottom line: I compromise on the smaller things. But I won't compromise on the intrinsic ones which deal with discrimination and fundamental rights. If your culture treats women as inferior beings, I won't play that game. Chances are I might give your country a miss. If I have to visit, I will insist on being treated equally. After all, cultural etiquette works both ways.
What about you? How do you feel about cultural etiquette and adapting to the culture you are visiting? I'd love to hear in the comments below.
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