We’ve all heard the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Back in 387 A.D. two saints (Ambrose and Augustine) were having a not-so-saintly argument about handling local customs when priests travelled. (One thought fasting on Saturday was right, the other thought the day should be Friday.)
Various sources attribute the memorable bit of advice to one saint or the other, but most agree that the meaning is simple: when you travel, don’t risk offending your hosts by ignoring their local customs. Back then, ignoring a local custom could get you crucified.
Today, places still remain where a public display of affection (holding hands, kissing, or even a hug between unmarried people of different genders) can get you flogged. The U.S. State Department website has a country-by-country list of warnings, tips, and taboos that can be useful.
Here are seven general travel taboos that go a long way toward avoiding cultural offense.
- Camera Taboos – Ask permission before taking photographs of a church or other place of worship – even if it’s “old and abandoned”. Don’t photograph or videotape anyone (especially a child, soldier, performer, participant in a religious festival, or government official) without permission.
- Foot & Shoe Taboos – If you see a collection of shoes by the front door, don’t ask. Just be prepared (with clean socks to put on if you weren’t wearing them when you arrived) to take your shoes off and leave them with the others. When sitting down, leave your feet flat on the floor (with shoes on or off). Pointing the soles of your feet at anybody is seen as ignorant and disrespectful in many regions.
- Hand Taboos – Your mother was right: never point at someone. If you have to point (to ask directions), use your open right hand, not a finger. In general, avoid hand gestures when possible – they differ widely from place to place, and several that are common in the U.S. (like the “rock on” sign with pinkie, index finger, and thumb extended and the ring and middle finger folded, “OK” sign with fingers in a circle, or the “thumbs up” sigh) are vulgar and extremely rude elsewhere. Don’t touch someone with your left hand (just the right). It’s an important symbol of respect in many countries.
- Gifts – If you are given a boxed or wrapped gift, do not open it in front of your host. If you bring a gift, and you should if you visit anyone in their home, make sure you bring something for the children of the family, and don’t be offended if they don’t open it while you are there. Never bring wine or alcohol into someone’s home.
- Politics – Criticizing the king or ruler, or the government, or the laws of a host country is both rude and dangerous. Even if your host does, you shouldn’t.
- Eye Contact – Eye contact etiquette varies widely, so just remember your mother’s advice and don’t stare.
- Dress Appropriately – Even countries with a wild nightlife and nude beaches have dress codes for cultural, religious, and shopping areas. American tourists are often criticized for not knowing when to cover up, so err on the side of caution and stick a light wrap or shirt into a day-pack so that you can cover shoulders and upper arms, legs, and midriff as appropriate when you’re going from beachfront to city center.
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