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Why Cultural Etiquette Matters

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.

The way the world sees 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. 

What kinds of behaviors constitute cultural etiquette?

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...

  • In certain male-dominated societies, looking a man in the eyes or trying to interact as an equal can get you into trouble.
  • In Buddhist countries, you shouldn't touch a monk. On a bus or in a vehicle, try to sit in the row in front or behind him. So I was a bit taken aback in northern Thailand when I had to ride a pickup truck with a monk, both of us scrunched into the front seat. I assume exceptions can be made if there's no other way.
  • In many Latin American countries and around the Mediterranean, you'll face unwanted male attention - mostly it shows appreciation of your beauty (or simply of your being female) yet for many Western women, this can be quite distasteful or downright scary.  Get ready to cope with wolf whistles, catcalls, lewd noises... and understand that in most cases, however unpleasant, they aren't threatening.
  • Showing anger (most Asian countries) or yelling at people (much of Africa) will get you absolutely nowhere - on the contrary.
  • Many cultures don't like saying No - so people will say they'll try (India) or maybe (Japan) or soon - don't be misled: this means No.

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.

What if...

  • each person that walks into a room shakes hands with every single person (Colombia) or kisses everyone (Spain)
  • strangers call you by your first name in business settings, even if they've never met you (South Africa)
  • people think you're rude if you point towards someone (almost everywhere)
  • you're invited to a sauna but first asked to take all your clothes off - in front of men and women you've never met before (Finland)
  • people stare if you cut your salad with a knife (Switzerland and France)...

See how easy it could be to offend or be offended?

How far should your cultural acceptance go?

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.

  • You can ignore cultural differences altogether and just be yourself wherever you go. There is a feel-good factor about being true to yourself and behaving with integrity. There is also the knock-on effect of other cultures being exposed to YOU, just as you are. But be aware that your behavior might be insulting to the receiving culture. If it's polite to burp in the Middle East when a meal is good, you might not appreciate it at your own dinner table. Your Middle Eastern guest is just - you guessed it - being polite. Standards and norms differ.
  • You can try to understand the differences and meet people part-way. Without compromising too much of yourself, you could accommodate local people to whatever extent you feel comfortable. For example I wore a wedding band across Africa: it just made people more comfortable around me. As a solo traveler I would otherwise have been kept at much more of a distance. I also wear a headscarf into a mosque, just as I cover my head in a church. Your own personal comfort zone will dictate how far you can go without compromising yourself.
  • You can adopt the local culture as your own, and 'go native'. Most people don't feel comfortable with this but if you're going to live long-term in a different culture, you might consider whether it's worth adapting for the sake of belonging. Again, this is a highly personal choice and there is no right or wrong.

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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