Egypt was my first time traveling to a predominately Muslim country. I knew things would be different there – especially as a woman – but when I showed up in a sleeveless yoga top for our tour of The Great Pyramids, my female tour guide gave me a look that screamed, “You’re going to wear that?!” It was blazingly hot out and with my ankle-length pants I thought my baggy tank would be okay. But when I asked, her awkward laugh told me that my bare arms and scoop neck showed a bit too much for comfort and I ended up putting on an extra shirt that Andrew had brought.
I started feeling more relieved about my oversized men’s t-shirt as we made our way around the pyramids. I witnessed a handful of shorts and tank top-wearing tourists who received a lot of unwanted attention from the locals. Both the men AND women leered, made angry remarks, and shook their heads. In a country where women are expected to cover their legs, arms, and hair, these tourists might as well not been wearing anything at all.
I admit, cultural sensitivity wasn’t something I took seriously until I felt the extreme of visiting a very conservative, foreign place. I look back at my past travels before that point and realized I wore and did some things that were probably frowned upon or seemed strange to a local. Every country has their own unique customs and as travellers we’re responsible to learn more about the places we’re visiting and show respect to the people who live there. Much like being a guest in someone’s home, you always honour your host’s rules.
Here are some things to consider on your next trip:
Take a cue from the locals on how you should dress. You might not be expected to dress at the same standard but it’s a good way to test whether your attire is appropriate or not.
When visiting a religious site, you may be required to cover your hair, legs or shoulders. That’s a non-negotiable!
If you’re style conscious, some countries tend to ‘dress up’ more than us North Americans. Europeans don’t really wear shorts and wouldn’t dream of wearing running shoes if they’re not at the gym. My cousin wore flip flops and a t-shirt while in Tokyo and said she felt like a bum. Again, take hints from the locals.
The point isn’t to blend in because you will walk and talk like a tourist (even in the most multi-cultural city in the world, I can still spot a tourist a mile away). What’s most important is to look presentable where you are.
If you don’t know the language, there are three things you should at least learn to say: “Hello”, “Thank you”, and “Do you speak English?” If the person says yes, that’s your invite to speak to them in English. Never go into a non-English speaking country and assume the people can understand and speak English. And definitely don’t expect them to!
PDA makes people uncomfortable. Limit yourselves to some innocent hand holding and keep the smooching behind closed doors.
If you want to take a photo of someone, just ask. Smile, politely ask, and get the okay from your subject before you start shooting. If they like the photo, offer to send it to them via email to extend your appreciation.
Do some research on the locations that you’re visiting and find out whether it’s appropriate to take pictures there. Respect areas that state no photography and please, no selfies at a memorial honouring the dead.
Food etiquette is one area that varies widely between different cultures. Italians don’t take home leftover food from a restaurant. Among the Thai, you’ll look cheap if you ask to split the bill. The Chinese will leave a small amount of food on their plate because an empty plate means the host didn’t feed them enough.
It helps to be aware of local etiquette too so you’re not surprised when locals practice them. The Japanese slurp their food loudly to express their enjoyment so don’t consider it rude if your dining neighbour sounds like he’s inhaling his noodles.
Tipping is a big one. Some establishments expect a tip, while some consider it rude to tip at all. Look this up before you go out to eat because you don’t want to find yourself awkwardly asking your server about their tipping etiquette (trust me on this).
Every country has them. They may not be based on any rational reason whatsoever, but you should be aware lest you unknowingly put a curse on someone.
A few of my favourites:
– If you’re the first person to visit a Vietnamese shop but you leave without buying anything, it’ll be a bad business day for the shopkeeper. Funny story: my sister had someone freak out at her in Saigon to buy something because of this.
– Putting your purse on the floor in Brazil means you’re going to lose money.
– Gum isn’t chewed at night in Turkey because it signifies chewing on flesh (ew).
– Never hand someone a knife in Greece or you’ll get in a fight with them.
– Whistling in your home in Russia will bring bad wealth.
– In Korea, sleeping in an enclosed room with a fan on can lead to suffocation.
– Don’t ask where an Indian is going as he’s leaving the house because you’ll jinx his ability to reach his destination.
What are your tips to respecting local culture when traveling?