Whatever you do, don’t mention the war: How to not cause offence while travelling abroad
As our nation’s primary holiday season draws ever closer it is worth taking a closer look at some of our favourite destinations. What should you expect when you get there and what are the national differences that you should be aware of?
While we all know the basics with regards to staying out of trouble and remaining safe while travelling, there are a number of habits and rituals that have been so engrained within us that they are very difficult to brush off. Many of these, however, can land you in trouble in various foreign lands so we’ve decided to take a look at those most associated with seasonal travel.
The giving of gifts
Lets say you’ve been lodging with a kindly local family or even at a bed and breakfast with a warm, welcoming hostess. Many of us would consider buying a gift to show our gratitude before parting ways. Gift giving, however, is a risky social exercise in many countries. The chance of offending is high.
Flowers seem to be a particular issue. In Russia and Ukraine it is important to never give someone an even number of flowers, as this is a tradition saved for funerals and decorating graves. On top of this, yellow flowers (except daffodils) are seen as melancholy (perhaps a break-up gesture) as it is the colour of sadness and deceit. A popular Russian song outlining a tragic breakup is entitled Yellow Tulips.
Just across the Baltic Sea, in Norway, there resides another irregular custom regarding the giving of flowers. While it is considered proper and polite to take a small gift with you when invited into a Norwegian’s home, make sure you never unwrap the flowers beforehand.
In the Netherlands it is considered offensive to make gifts of sharp objects, the superstition being that anyone who does this is wishing harm upon the recipient. While our continental cousins are hardly a superstitious nation, don’t ignore local etiquette. You really don’t want to insult this friendly nation, so save the knives, ninja stars and hatchets for your British buddies!
If we travel further east to cultures even more distinct from our own, we can encounter several even stranger customs (in ignorant Western eyes, of course). In China, it is very poor taste to give an umbrella or clock. Due to the complexity of the ancient Chinese languages it is quite difficult for us to quickly understand the reasons for this. They are, however, linguistically connected to morbidity and when presented to someone they symbolise a ‘death wish.’ In fact, the clock is seen to be counting down the seconds until the death of the recipient.
Having grown up in our close-knit communities with family and friends we have all become accustomed to physically acting in certain ways. We understand which actions are positive and which are negative. It is always necessary to remember when travelling that the history, culture and social customs can be very different from our own. Some of the hand gestures, for example, that are thrown around left, right and centre in the UK are considered very offensive in distant lands.
The ‘ok’ hand gesture – the thumb and index finger pressed together in a circle – is considered extremely rude in South America’s most populous nation, Brazil. A famous related incident was that when President Nixon visited the country on a goodwill mission and unknowingly displayed the offensive hand gesture before boarding his return flight. This was effectively a final (and, of course, un-called for) put down to the waiting crowd! The newsreel is still occasionally shown in cinemas and shared across social media. Don’t fall into the same trap!
In France and Belgium too, this gesture is considered offensive, signifying ‘worthlessness’ or ‘zero.’
Another problem area is the thumbs-up sign that seems so natural to us Westerners, meaning anything from ‘that went well’ to a general gesture of good will. Despite being seen as universally positive over here, it is extremely offensive in the Middle East, Western Africa and much of South America. If you ever find yourself hitchhiking in the Middle East, make sure you use a different technique to attract the attention of passing cars – or even better, hire a car!
As a general rule, be careful when asking for (or even giving) directions when abroad. Pointing with your index finger is rude in so many other countries that it might be worth leaving this gesture behind at Heathrow. It is widely recommended, particularly in much of Asia, to use an open hand to indicate direction.
This is a particular cause for concern for us Brits, as the practice of tipping is fairly casual over here. But what of abroad? The United States is famously strict about tipping. In fact, there have been many examples of unsuspecting (and often, unsatisfied) customers being confronted by indignant waiters and even chased down the street. The current standard is around a staggering 20%! To avoid an embarrassing interchange be prepared to supplement the total, or, if you’re lucky, in some of the larger cities, restaurants are beginning to ban tipping – for the very reason that it can be a stressful end to the meal.
On the other side of the coin, in many Asian countries such as Japan or Singapore, tipping is not part of the culture whatsoever, and is often seen as baffling or even offensive by service workers.
With the tipping customs being so different across contemporary nations it is certainly advisable to read up on the subject before travelling, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the currency. You could ask a trusted local such as a hotel concierge. For starters, why not take a look at this country-by-country guide to tipping?
A few other things to keep in mind
If you are travelling to Singapore there are quite a few rules of etiquette to keep in mind while in public. A governmental move to maintain cleanliness in the crowded streets now means that it is illegal to publicly smoke, chew gum, litter, or eat or drink on public transport. It is particularly advisable to read up on street etiquette here, as you really don’t want to be caught out!
A simple rule to follow while travelling is to always veer on the side of respect and caution. Avoid making risqué jokes until you are absolutely comfortable with the culture and national character. Try to observe those around you and do your best to blend in. Although there is nothing wrong with being a tourist you will often have a more genuine and enjoyable experience simply by doing as the locals do. You certainly don’t want to upset them with an offensive hand gesture! As they say: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Enjoy your summer travels and stay safe!