One of my first interactions when visiting Thailand was this: I was in a hotel lobby, and a lady from my tour group propped her feet up on a coffee table. The tour guide immediately swatted them down. She said it was offensive in Thailand to display the bottoms of your shoes or feet to others.
The lady meant no offense, and it was a very specific rule that she probably wouldn’t know unless someone told her. And yet, she probably wouldn’t prop her feet up on the coffee table of someone’s home. She didn’t apply this same logic here.
It made me think: While there’s no way we can walk into another country and immediately know all their customs, we can follow some basic guidelines that will decrease the chances that we accidentally offend someone. Here are 10 tips to get you started — please add your own in the comments!
Traveling Etiquette Tips
- Let’s start with the one we’ve already covered: Don’t prop up your feet in public. There are many countries with all sorts of rules about feet: Cleaning them, removing your shoes, covering your foot entirely, etc. Make a point to figure those rules out. But a good place to start is to not prop your feet up like you’re in your own living room. Whether there’s any specific protocol around it or not: People typically don’t care to see your feet or the bottoms of your shoes.
- When in doubt, take off your hat. If you’re in a religious building or an anthem is playing or whatever, just take off your hat. It won’t kill you to be without it for awhile.
- Don’t take photos indoors with the flash on. Flash deteriorates artwork. There’s usually pretty clear signage about camera rules — you may be able to make out the small sign in the photo above of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia — so look for these signs to make sure photos are allowed at all. But more often than not, flash indoors where there’s artwork is a no-no.
- Do not speak in an overly loud voice. This can be hard for Americans especially. We’re excited. We’re trying to corral our families, etc. But our voices can sound very booming to people of other countries, and I personally have heard them complain about our volume. So turn the volume down.
- Learn how to say “hello,” “good-bye” and “thank you” in the language of the country you’re visiting. Even if your accent is terrible, people generally appreciate the effort. You may want to learn “restroom” too for your own benefit.
- Slightly nod your head down when thanking someone. This is a sign of deference nearly anywhere and is typically interpreted as a sign of respect.
- Don’t point. This is hard because you are definitely going to one to point out that really-amazing-thing-over-there to your traveling companion. But pointing is considered rude in many countries, so it’s best to avoid it. Motioning with an open hand is safer.
- Unless you’re at a beach community or Vegas, don’t show too much skin. There are countries where it’s offensive to display your knees or your shoulders or where attire is simply more conservative than ours. Other countries are more free-for-all, so you can be free right along with them. But if unsure, you’re never going to offend anyone by dressing more conservatively than usual. At the very least, bring a cardigan or shawl so you can cover up when you need to.
- Don’t exclaim how cheap everything is in that country. Because you know what? It’s probably not cheap to the people who live there.
- Rein in your smartphone usage. You’re going to need your mapping system to navigate, so I’ll give you that one. But don’t walk around with your head down texting and not paying attention to the fact that you’re clogging sidewalk traffic. And I know it’s tempting to Instagram/Facebook/tweet all the amazing sites of your trip, but fight that urge. Instead choose a few key moments to share, and then put the phone away. Experience what’s going on around you instead — you’ll enjoy yourself more, and you’ll leave locals with a better impression of your home country.
Article by Christine Landry