When you travel internationally, it’s a good idea to learn some of the common customs and cultural perceptions. You can find some of the basic ones by doing a simple Google search. Being mindful that what your culture perceives as normal or polite can be considered unusual or rude by others will reduce inadvertent insults on your part as well as failure to correctly perceive whether you’re being treated well or badly.
For example, before I went to Thailand, I found out that it’s considered rude for the bottoms of your feet to face anyone because they’re considered unclean. I had to curb my dance habit of sometimes flexing my feet to stretch my calves while sitting.
Below are some of the customs and cultural perceptions I’ll need to keep in mind during my upcoming travels. And if you’re from any of these countries or have lived abroad in them, please let me know if you have any corrections or additions you feel should be addressed.
Small talk with random strangers is considered superficial (whereas we consider chatting to be friendly).
If a random stranger of the opposite sex smiles at you, they’re probably hitting on you. Keep a blank look, then turn away (unless you’re actually interested in that sort of interaction).
Restaurant checks are usually split evenly, regardless of who ordered what.
Greet clerks when entering/exiting shops
If you need to ask a stranger something, lead with “Excusez-moi de vous déranger” (sorry to bother you).
Jaywalking isn’t illegal, and quite common.
Patiently wait in queues. Don’t complain about it.
Most pubs don’t serve dinner or have dedicated waitstaff. Go to the bar, order your drink and meal, and tell them where you’re sitting.
You’ll need to request more to drink at restaurants. No free refills here.
Be aware that many shops close after 5 or 6 o’clock.
Leave a small amount of food on your plate.
Don’t put your hands in your pockets. This is going to be a tough one for me…it’s pretty common in the Southern hillbilly culture I’m from and I do it all the time.
Finish all the food on your plate.
Belgian culture is heterogenous. Find our whether French, German, or Dutch culture influence the area you’re visiting. Choose the language you use to address others in the same way. Speak English if you aren’t sure which is appropriate.
The American “OK” sign means “zero” in Belgium.
Subtlety is preferred over directness.
Have good posture.
Don’t point your index finger at your head (it’s an insult).
Eat everything on your plate.
Again, don’t put your hands in your pockets [while talking to people].
Don’t chew gum or clean your fingernails in public.
They don’t really do lines here.
No lines here either.
Whistling is rude (*sad face*)
It’s polite to hold your plastic or money with both hands when giving or receiving it.
Point with open hands, not your index finger. Likewise, beckon by making a scratching motion with the palm down instead of palm up and curling your index finger.
It’s better to ask someone you already know to introduce you to another person that they already know than to approach them yourselves out of the blue.
“Saving face” is big there. For example, if you ask for directions, you might be given good ones or you might be pointed in a random direction if the person doesn’t know the answer. They don’t want to be perceived poorly, which seems counter-intuitive to us because our cultural norm is that admitting shortcomings is fine, but lying is bad. Thankfully, on my previous trip, I found that I could usually tell based on the generality of the answer and facial expressions/body language whether the person was giving me correct directions or not.
Be prepared to haggle prices at markets and be more insistent than you think you should be. The cost you’re verbally given when shopping is going to be way overpriced because you’re a foreigner (and therefore assumed to have more money). Try countering with 1/10th that amount. If they reply by offering a price lower than the original, continue bartering with them. If they don’t, they’re probably unwilling to go lower for a foreigner because they work in a market frequented by foreigners who don’t know better, so say “tài guì le” (that’s too expensive) and shop somewhere else. In some markets, they’ll be very insistent that you buy from them, going so far as to follow you or pull you into their shop.
No hands in pockets when talking to someone here, either.
The American “OK” sign is a rude gesture.
Don’t point your index finger at your head here, either.
If someone corrects your behavior, be gracious. It’s a social duty.
Stand when an elder or someone with a higher rank enters the room.
Common differences and American mannerisms
Chatting with strangers and loud, jovial conversations are very American and not widespread in other cultures.
Our idea of personal space is pretty big, comparatively. You may find that people stand uncomfortably close to you because they don’t know your ‘bubble’ is bigger than theirs.
We say “thank you” a lot more than many cultures. One of my Chinese colleagues told me we’re the only ones he’s ever known to say “thank you so much”. Note: “please”, “thanks”, and “sorry” are also commonplace in England.
When to show up to appointments, meetings, etc…differs substantially between cultures. Americans often show up 5-15 minutes early. In some cultures, you’re expected to be there right on time. In others, you’re expected to show up late. Find out what the typical time difference is for the country you’re in. Take that into consideration when showing up for or planning meetings.
We tip a lot. In some cultures, tipping (or tipping too much) comes off as showing off or insulting the employers. Find out what the local tipping customs are and tip accordingly.
Some cultures have gift-giving customs. Find out what they might be interested in and bring some small gifts along with you if you foresee being in a situation that would warrant it.
Business cards are commonly exchanged in many cultures. If you can, make double-sided cards with the local language version on one side and English on the other.
If you have any special dietary needs or restrictions, let any dinner hosts know beforehand. I’m a teetotaler, so I make sure to let local colleagues know if I may be in a situation where it would be rude for me to refuse alcohol without prior warning.
It varies across the US, but many Americans see certain physical contact as friendly (hugs as greetings, congratulatory back-slapping, etc…). Other cultures may not be comfortable with physical contact between people who aren’t close, or may have alternate gestures (“cheek kissing”, which is really more kissing the air beside the cheeks).
Depaysement and Culture Clash
One final thing I want to point out–culture clash is a valid thing. I’m not invalidating the differences here, just pointing them out. You’ll tolerate them better if you’re aware of them going in than just thrown into the fray.
There were times in China when I hated the place and other times when I loved it just because there were a few things that really got on my nerves (e.g., being stared at nonstop by people standing right next to me on the bus, or being stalked by someone who was curious about how Americans live but not very tactful about it). I just made an effort to avoid contact with people when I was grumpiest, both for my sake and for theirs. And sometimes I had to act in a way that I’m used to thinking of as rude (e.g., shoving and squeezing my way onto the subway), which I then had to unlearn when I got home because I got used to it after two months of doing it.
Overall, just be mindful. If you’re there long enough, you will develop depaysement (a French word for the feeling of being a foreigner) in a bad way at some point. Awareness of cultural differences helps dampen it and helps you recover more quickly. And makes it more pleasant for locals to interact with you.