Savannah Grace

7 Cultural Mishaps to Avoid

Last Tuesday on “The Road Less Travelled” (#TRLT) Twitter chat we discussed CULTURE and its idiosyncrasies.

In today’s societies it’s cultures that clash and can be the underlying antagonisms that create confusion, misunderstanding and missed connections. In this digital age we are more synced  than any other time in the history of mankind. Travel is now so inexpensive and navigation is so intricate that nearly anyone can enjoy the multitude of unique societies that inhabit the planet. The jigsaw puzzle of culture includes foods, attire, religion, art and languages. Problems arise when one piece of the puzzle becomes offended by an unintentional action, signal, touch or word that disturbs the whole picture and makes communication incomplete or misinterpreted.

Thumbs Up – If you’re a citizen from Canada like me, you wouldn’t think twice about giving a friendly thumbs up in a foreign country to a passerby or someone who did a good job. In countries like Greece, Iran and parts of West Africa however, you’d be doing it and it would have meaning akin to the middle finger in North America.

Touching Someone’s Head – Patting a cute, little child on the head as he bumps you in the supermarket would be considered a simple sign of affection, but beware of this particular gesture in many parts of Asia. There, the head is considered the most sacred part of the human body and should never be touched. In that environment, your action of patting the head is blocking the spirit from the heavens.

Pointing Your Feet At Someone – You may not realize that an innocent pointing your feet in the direction of someone else could be offensive. In Muslim countries and many parts of Asia, the feet are considered the lowest, foulest part of the body and because of such, feet absolutely should not be pointed in someone’s direction. So, after a long day of trekking in the historical Buddhist Temples and climbing through ancient ruins, do not put your feet up to relax, aiming the bottom of your feet at someone else. Even worse, never face your feet towards a sacred Buddha statue. One of my unforgettable memories was a time in Egypt where I was sitting with my legs crossed with one of my feet pointing at a guard in the Museum of Cairo. Offended, the guard rushed over and chastised me verbally.

OK Sign – Everything okay? Be sure you’re not using this simple hand gesture, thumb to index finger, if you’re in Brazil or parts of Europe. It is the equivalent of the middle finger. You certainly do not want to piss off a German police officer or a Russian border guard.

Beware of the Left Hand – Mongolia was the first country where I was introduced to the cultural difference of the dedicated left hand. In Asia and Africa, the left hand is used for personal hygiene (yes, it is used to wipe) and thus can never be used to shake hands, accept gifts or even be found above the table during a meal. So when you’re enjoying your soup in Mongolia, don’t pick up your bread and begin breaking it into your soup with both hands. Your host will be appalled and the other guests disgusted at your repugnant behavior.

Eating with Hands- Many parts of the world, including Morocco, India, Mauritania, Ethiopia and actually, darn near every country in Africa, cutlery is not part of the table setting and it is completely normal to eat using your hands. It’s not rude to ask for or use a fork, but I recommend diving in, as the locals do, for the full, unique, cultural experience. And to be safe, use your right hand for eating, and keep your left hand in your lap! Also be understanding if you see someone eating with their hands in a restaurant or a dinner party in your own country. They may be from abroad and have different cultural etiquette at the dinner table. 

Birthday Congratulations – I’m throwing this one in here because it is one of the first cultural differences I noticed, eight years ago, when I became a Dutch resident in The Netherlands. In North America we congratulate the birthday boy or girl with a big “Happy Birthday”. In The Netherlands it’s polite to congratulate each and every family member and friend with “gefeliciteerd!”. This salutation is combined with the relationship they have to the birthday person. For example, “Gefeliciteerd met je son” means “Congratulations with your son.”

Through travel we join cultures, cement relationships and thereby can understand each other, reaching a much deeper level. I believe travel is the vehicle for creating the peaceful world we are all aiming for. If we aren’t careful to approach those that we meet with an open mind and sensitivity to their cultural differences, we can be the spark that causes fights and upset versus friendship and love. I am a Canadian and I have travelled to 111 countries. I am guilty of making some of these innocent cultural mistakes, as well as mistakes I never even realized I made. I have to remind myself to open my mind and breath in the differences of others. I utilize the internet and do research on the people and places that I am travelling to. I urge you to open your minds up and breath when you are traveling or even when you’re anticipating meeting new people in your own country. When you do find yourself feeling insulted, or annoyed, or set back by another person’s gestures, behavior or words, take a moment to process. You may be experiencing and misinterpreting an innocent cultural difference between you and another, a person that had zero intent of offending you.

Join us TODAY at 1pmNYC/6pmUK on “The Road Less Travelled” Twitter LIVE chat for a chat on THE UNKNOWN. Search the hashtag #TRLT to find us and don’t forget to include the hashtag in your tweets to participate with your fellow travellers. Inspire and be inspired. I am here each and every week hosting the chat with fellow travellers Shane Dallas (public speaker, visited 100+ countries), Jessica Lipowski (accomplished author and “foodie”) and Anton Magnin (specialist in family travel).

Savannah Grace

Your partner in travel enrichment

1 reply »

  1. Good advice! One thing I have found that helps me is, when in doubt, peek st the nearest local then copy their actions. Especially when it comes to dining it’s been very helpful!

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