Mind Your Manners While Traveling Internationally: Respecting Local Customs for a More Relaxing Holiday

Part 2 of our series covers seven more popular destinations in 2016. Read up to keep yourself in check while abroad!

brazil beach

Brazil
This summer all eyes are going to be on Brazil and many visitors will be descending upon the country to participate in the summer Olympics. Here are a few quick tips that will keep your trip running smoothly. First of all, throw your watch out the window. That might be a slight exaggeration, but the quicker you make this adjustment the better. Brazilians are perpetually late and the concept of being on time is practically non-existent. This extends from friends who might be meeting to restaurant service and even train and bus timetables. Just chill. Check your impatience at the border for a much more relaxing visit.

Try to remember that your tourist Spanish won’t get you far in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Most people speak a little English. You can practice your Spanish in Mexico next year, comprende? Finally, this is an oldie but goodie but generally worth repeating in Brazil. There are a lot obscene and insulting hand gestures in Brazil that look a lot like non-threatening hand gestures in the States. Just do yourself a favor and reign in the demonstrative hand gestures.

Finally, communal drinking really is a thing in Brazil. Beers come LARGE, but don’t be surprised if after you order a big bottle, a whole random group of “friends” appear to help you drink it. Don’t worry – they’ll get you back. It’s just good manners to share.

singapore
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Singapore
Many of the customs in Japan are similar to Singapore, like the practice of taking off your shoes when going indoors and minding your chopsticks etiquette (do not stick them upright in the food is the grand-daddy of bad chopsticks form). But there are some customs that are specific to Singapore. For example, when you see an empty table in a crowded restaurant, it’s not free if there’s a packet of tissues/napkins on top. That’s the Singaporean tradition of “chope” – effectively functioning as the American “Reserved” sign.

In public places, walk on the left side if you’re feeling like strolling rather than walking fast, with single-minded purpose. If you’re ambling on the right, don’t be surprised if a tiny old lady or a hustling businessman mows you down. Left is slow, right is fast. Remember that.

There are also a lot of complicated laws that you’re better off not even trying to unravel. Just know that if you’re a smoker, it’s now illegal in most places. Look for “Smoking” signs if you must light up – and don’t risk a ticket. Speaking of expensive tickets, don’t even think about chewing bubblegum in Singapore. Bubblegum was outlawed in Singapore in 1992 after a trashed sidewalk and jammed subway turnstile problem caused by vandalism caused the government to crack down. By law, visitors are banned from carrying gum into the country and if you’re found with it you can get slapped with a fine of up to $5,500. Yikes.

Cuba Travel FAQs

Cuba
Oh, Cuba! Such a wonderful country full of contradictions! With more and more Americans making their maiden voyage to Cuba these days, you should know a few of the idiosyncrasies of getting by. To begin with as a matter of practicality, locals in a Communist country are accustomed to waiting in long lines for nearly everything. Cubans have come up with a quite clever solution to this most tedious of tasks. Tourists unschooled will be scratching their heads, but we can help. Basically, when you walk up to a line (at a takeaway restaurant, ice cream stand, post office, etc.), you should never assume that the last person standing in the line is actually the end of the line. No. You should walk up and say loudly “Ultimo?” which is basically, “Who’s last?” Then look around – you might see someone napping under a tree or chatting with friends 50 yards away or studying on a park bench. When you determine who is, in fact, last then it is your mission to keep an eye on that guy. When he gets in line, that’s your cue that it’s almost your turn. Oh! And don’t forget to do your part when the next person calls “Ultimo?” and let them know it’s you.

You might also be tempted to talk about politics as an American, but please try and be sensitive to the fact that Cubans are living under a restrictive regime. They cannot speak out against their government without fear of reprisal. Don’t put Cubans in unsafe or tricky positions just so you can talk about the Cold War. Remember, you’re on vacation and they have to live here when you go.

If you rent a car to get around the island, it’s worth it to know that many Cubans hitchhike to get around and it’s completely safe to do so. Locals see it as part of their civic duty to offer a ride, and it’s actually considered rude not to. People will not expect it of tourists, but know that you’re being a good citizen if you pull over to offer a ride. Think of it as fostering better cultural communication even if it puts you out of your comfort zone for a bit.

egyptian women
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Egypt
We could all benefit from a revisiting of the “When in Rome” rule for any international travel but especially in a conservative, majority Muslim country like Egypt. Countless Americans (women especially) run afoul of local custom simply by refusing to dress conservatively. In Egypt, both men and women should cover their shoulders unless you’re on the beach. Dressing in shorts, halter-tops, anything midriff-bearing might be a political statement for you, but it will undoubtedly get you unwanted and invasive attention (up to and including groping) from less sophisticated locals. Loose-fitting clothing and a pair of sunglasses to avoid unwanted eye contact are a good idea.

Your right hand should be used for food exclusively – when eating in groups of people the left hand is strictly verboten. Finally, as a foreigner you will be expected to contribute to the local economy in the form of baksheesh. Just accept it as part of the cultural landscape and move on. Most Egyptians live on under $100 a month (to support a family!), so try to remember this when you feel an injustice is being perpetrated against your wallet. In general, baksheesh for small acts of kindness or for bending the rules should be seen as a necessary part of the experience and we encourage you to not make a federal case out of it (it may be the principle and not the cost, but you’ll never win this battle and you’ll have a better time if you plan for it). Alms-giving (to the less fortunate) is part of the general culture here, so while you may not see locals targeted for baksheesh, they are participating in this cycle of taking care of the less fortunate in other ways.

melbourne, australia
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Australia
Australian culture revolves around equality for everyone and not being boastful, so you’ll fit in much better if you’re not trying to impress people with your job, your car, your general demeanor. In fact, in Australia there’s even a phrase for this tendency: it’s the “tall poppy syndrome.” If you find yourself discussing your Harvard education or multi-million dollar home amongst Aussies and instead of being lauded you’re getting ridiculed or cut down about it? You’re a recipient of the tall poppy syndrome– the cultural propensity to cut blowhards down to their rightful size (amongst the rest of the ordinary folk). If, on the other hand, you’re on the receiving end of some gentle ribbing, that’s a good sign. Aussies like to hang with people who can take a little teasing.

When out drinking with Aussies, standard operating procedure dictates that you “shout” the group, which just means you should pay for a round. Don’t be a jerk and leave before you do. Yes, even the ladies. Once completely unheard of, tipping is now done on occasion. As with everything else, don’t go overboard. Big tippers are considered gauche. If you’re going to tip, just round up to show the server you appreciate the service. Finally, if you get invited to dinner at an Australian’s house? Bringing beer or wine is a very acceptable hostess gift, just like in the U.S.

norway
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Norway
Norway is a very popular destination these days for international travelers, especially those who love the outdoors. Here are a few tips to keep you on the right side of the locals, and one tip to keep you out of jail! First off, drinking and driving is an absolute no-no. The blood alcohol limit in Norway is .02 to our .08 so even one drink should keep you from getting behind the wheel. Second, Norwegians are friendly, but a bit remote. They appreciate their personal space – don’t get too close too fast. A handshake is preferable to a hearty hug from a stranger and in public spaces try not to make eye contact with someone you don’t know. If you’re riding public transport? Don’t sit down next to someone unless there isn’t another free seat available with a bit more elbow room. It’s just polite.

In terms of discussion items, use some common sense. The Norwegians are also a proud people so talking about their high taxes or remarking on their government is probably not going to be met with a whole lot of love. Another area to tread lightly – comparing Norway to Sweden or Denmark or making any assumptions about the similarity between northern European countries is going to put you in the doghouse. Norway is NOT part of Scandinavia and was occupied for a bit by Sweden, so do yourself a favor and just don’t start expounding on all the ways in which Sweden is the BEST. You might earn extra points if you compliment Norwegian chocolate, especially Kvikk Lunsj which trumps all others to a Norwegian.

banff, canada

Canada
With more and more Americans traveling to Canada, it seems only appropriate that we give our friends to the North their due as well. At this point it’s something of a cliché, but you know what they say about clichés. Canadians are just respectful and nice to a fault. Boorish behavior is unacceptable (unless you’re at an ice hockey match), so just mind your P’s and Q’s and try to blend in. An oddly favorite topic for some Americans is how “similar” Canada is to the States, but you’ll brand yourself a donkeyhead if you take up this conversation. Canada is a separate, completely independent country and Canucks can grow quickly irritated by the constant co-opting. A word about currency in Canada. Though our neighbors to the north have pennies just like we do, a lot of retailers no longer accept them (the value of the copper coin is negligible). In fact, it’s becoming customary to round up to the nearest 5-cent increment. It’ll save you dealing with exasperated shopkeepers if you’re aware of the rule.

Please check our first post on international travel etiquette if you don’t see your travel destination here. We’ll keep researching countries that are up-and-coming or popular for 2016. If you have any additional tips from your travels, we’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Please also feel free to share any destinations you’d like us to cover. Happy travels!

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