Travel Etiquette: Knowing Culture


Sometimes when we go travel, we may become oblivious to some of the standard practices and society norms, which is understandable considering we are already consumed by new imageries and languages surrounding us; it is already quite overwhelming to intake.  It’s too often that what we learned from home becomes a habit, and that we carry these behaviors into other countries which may irk the locals in unintended ways.  I myself have committed such errors of course, and that’s why I recognise the importance of having this post.  By the way, this will be an ongoing post whenever I come up with something more.  Here are a couple of etiquettes you should be aware of when travelling to a new country:

  1. Where they stand on the escalators.  Some stand on the right and let the left side open for those in a hurry, some stand on the left instead, and some just sort of is open for both lanes depending on whether it’s rush hour or not.  Use your judgment and see where people are standing.
  2. Driving in a new country?  Note how aggressive they are.  In cities like anywhere in Italy or Hong Kong, you have to be a little bit more aggressive or you won’t be able to merge into lanes during traffic.  In other places like Los Angeles, don’t be too aggressive or it will come off the wrong way for Americans.  In China, people don’t even use their directional lights because when they do, other drivers will speed up and overtake you instead, making it more dangerous.
  3. This aggression also comes into play in public transportation.  In cities with huge population density like Shanghai, if you don’t “fight” your way onto buses and be a gentleman or a lady, you will never make it on the bus.  Sometimes you just have to be a little bit more proactive in order to get on the bus.  In many other cities though, this would come off as extremely rude.  So observe and see how other people behave.
  4. How much personal space do people need?  Note the distance between people around you.  Places with high population density like Hong Kong tend to have less personal space during moving around, but may differ during more private settings like in restaurants and such.  In the Nordic countries, you may notice huge distances between people.
  5. What is the pace of the people?  Try to match the walking pace of how the locals walk.
  6. The volume of conversations.  How loud do people talk?  This is something that can really go unnoticed, especially in places where you talk loudly and when you travel to a new city that appreciates its quietness, it can come off rather rude.  You will also notice signs everywhere.  So for example in Taiwan and Japan, people generally never use their phones in the subways because it’s too noisy.  Also, most cities would appall at tourists who are yelling at one another over streets.  The volume of conversations may also change in different environments too.  Some restaurants are meant for loud noisy conversations, but some highly discourage this.  By the way, volume doesn’t apply to just talking, it could apply to other noises you make but usually aren’t aware of, like how loud you eat, your footsteps, your breathing etc.
  7. Are you cleaning up yourselves or will the staff do it for you?  In most countries in the world, usually the staff will do it for you.  However in the US, cleaning yourself after eating in fast food restaurants is expected.  Fine dining and many other sit down restaurants will probably have the staff clean up the dishes for you.
  8. How do people greet one another?  Some places like Switzerland they expect 3 kisses, left right left, in French it’s 2 kisses, right left, in US it may be a handshake, and in more conservative places like Asia it may just be a wave or a hello.  In Japan, it is expected that you bow in general, and that you would have to bow lower if you were the younger or lower ranking person.
  9. How direct are people in the city?  In US, most people are quite direct in what they want and what they don’t want.  And although logically it makes sense because that way it’s more efficient, it doesn’t work that way in many other cities.  In fact, this sort of directness may come off as rude.  For example in Japan, if I were to ask somebody to meet up later tonight for drinks or dinner or whatever, and if that other person is busy, that other person will not say ‘no’ but will make gestures and use phrases that should indirectly let me know that the other person is busy, and as the person who asked the question, I’m supposed to infer from this and retract my statement by saying something also indirect like, “Well actually maybe the weather isn’t too good for today, let’s try again sometime.”
  10. What is the body language of people?  In the US, if you’re walking with a swagger, you might come off as being confident.  In other countries, especially more conservative countries in Asia, your swagger may be too much, and it may come off as arrogance.  What you want to do in these situations is learn the normalcy of normal behavior, and take it up a slight notch to make yourself appear more confident.
  11. In general, I think littering is a bad idea.  You will see in some cities that it seems to be more acceptable to litter anywhere, and in other cities it is highly unacceptable.  Therefore make it simple for yourself, save the environment, and just don’t litter.


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