When we travel, I believe that we are ambassadors for our country. We should respect other cultures and seek to gain respect from others. No matter how well-travelled we are, however, it is still possible to make mistakes when we visit a different country, especially one with a very different culture from our own. What to us may seem a perfectly innocent remark or action can cause anything from mild amusement to utter outrage.  Even if we are careful, sooner or later, we all fall foul of a faux-pas or two. Here, travellers share their cultural misunderstandings and mishaps from the funny to the utterly regrettable!

A sign by a temple in Bangkok requests visitors dress appropriately and cover tattoos to help avoid any cultural offence

Cultural misunderstandings and mishaps from around the world #tradition #culture #travel #traveltips #worldtravel

 

Cultural misunderstandings in Asia

India (and England) | A sticky moment with the Raj of Thanjavur

The experience from my travels that most sticks out in my mind isn’t so much as a misunderstanding, it’s more of a mishap but it gives an interesting insight into another culture. It still makes me both chuckle and cringe when I think about it.

One evening, while touring Tamil Nadu in southern India many years ago, a small group of us arranged to have dinner in the palace at Thanjavur with the Raj. We had dressed up in our finest saris (or in my case the only one I had) and hung garlands of jasmine in our hair just as every female from quite a young age does every day in this region.

As we made our way through the corridors of the 500-year-old palace to the dining hall I imagined that there would be a large number of people attending a grand banquet. So I was very surprised when we were shown into a relatively small room, with only 4 tables each seating 2 people. Feeling a little uncertain of myself I sat down in the nearest available seat. No sooner had I done this than the Raj sat down next to me! I almost went to stand-up again but the Raj kindly gestured for me to stay put.

I was a lot shyer then than I am now and lacking in confidence, so I was rather concerned about making small talk with such an important man. I needn’t have worried as he immediately put me at my ease and started telling me about his responsibilities as the Raj.

The first course of soup was served. I was still holding my rather cumbersome camera bag so I thought I’d slip it under the table. As I bent down leaning with one hand on the table, the whole top flipped up propelling the bowls of soup into the air and spraying the contents over my companion. Oh heck!

The Raj was the personification of grace and good manners and before long we were both seated back down, tucking into fresh bowls of soup.

The next course was served in a traditional manner without plates or cutlery. Instead various delightful curries, rice and accompaniments were placed on a banana leaf in front of me and I had to eat with my hands. Now, this was the first time I had tried this and as you can imagine I made a bit of a mess of it. What was worse still, I kept forgetting not to use my left hand which is a very serious breach of etiquette. As in a number of cultures, there is a strict rule of only eating with your right hand. Your left hand is used for.. erm.. other things.

It turned out to be a fascinating evening. The palace dancers and musicians entertained us and the Raj explained that both the dancers’ and the musicians’ families had served the palace for many generations each passing on their skill and knowledge to the next generation. There were a great many such families that depended on the palace for their homes and livelihood. The Raj was responsible for them all, maintaining their homes, providing health care and access to education. He talked about his hopes and his dreams and his other responsibilities and how he had to lead by example and live a very moral life. It was a wonderful evening which I shall never forget, despite the rocky start.

By the time I left India, I was quite used to eating with my hands or rather my right hand. The problem now was that I was too used to it. Not long after I was back in England I went to a wonderful restaurant in Brick Lane in London, an area well-known for its Indian cuisine. About halfway through the meal I completely forgot about my knife and fork and started eating my rice and curry with my hand. My date stopped eating and stared at me. I realised what I was doing. He looked mortified. The waiters looked horrified. I didn’t turn around to see if any of the other guests noticed!

India | The most awkward day in India

When Alejandra from Universo Viajero arrived in India she soon realised not researching the local culture beforehand had been a big mistake.

“When I decide to travel somewhere, one of the first things I do is find out important information about the place, it’s culture and sights that can’t be missed. I’ve always tried to respect the locals, their traditions and culture. For one reason or another, I was so excited about my upcoming trip to India that for once I didn’t do this. Big mistake!

My first day in India was in Kolkata, one of the most conservative cities and regions in the country. Without knowing there was a dress code different from my own, I went out wearing shorts and a little, shoulderless shirt. Imagine this scene: hundreds (if not thousands) of faces looking at you and turning around at every corner to check you out. Of course, in their country, as i found out, everyone covers their shoulders and knees, and in this region in the north to even see a man in shorts is strange.

It was the most awkward day of my life… I hate feeling observed and I was just invaded with looks from everyone all day long. I tried desperately to find a shop so I could buy something, anything to cover myself but we were so lost we couldn’t find one. We even spent 12 hours without eating because everything was so confusing and we weren’t prepared for the cultural shock.

 At the end of the day, we found a shopping mall and I asked a girl to help me understand everything that was wrong with my clothes. She was so helpful and I ended buying tons of new things for the one month of travelling in India that was ahead of me.”

Indonesia | Wardrobe Malfunction at an Indonesian Wedding

When Meg from Fox in the Forest was invited to a wedding while travelling in Asia, all she had to wear were jeans.

“Several years ago, before Instagram and social media, I couch-surfed my way across South East Asia. One of my host families in Jogjakarta owned a catering business that specialized in weddings. Knowing the local language, my host family and I became close. At the end of our stay, I was invited to tag along to a local wedding.

Indonesia, especially the island of Java where I was staying, is a conservative place. Islam is the predominant religion and conservative dress is the norm. Since I was backpacking, I didn’t have any clothing suitable for such a fancy affair, just a pair of jeans. My hosts let me borrow some of their daughter’s clothing.

The family handed me a dress and I tried it on. As I emerged from my room everyone looked on in horror at my exposed legs. They didn’t want to embarrass me, but it was obvious I had done something wrong. In hushed whispers, they chatted urgently, then my host’s brother came up to me and casually asked if I had any trousers to wear underneath. I explained that the only thing I had were a pair of jeans. So I put them on.

Things didn’t improve when we arrived. Indonesian weddings are typically well over 300 people, but we certainly did not blend in. We quickly garnered tons of attention, and since I spoke Indonesian, everyone wanted to talk to me, including the wedding party. We were invited to the family’s private eating area where the bride was clearly upset that I was taking attention away from her special day. I tried my best to hide, but it was no use. Needless to say, it certainly was a unique experience!

Sri Lanka | Knowing when to cover-up or strip off!

Josh from Veggie Vagabonds was taken by surprise by the dress code in a temple in Sri Lanka.

“As a male traveller, there are often not so many cultural norms and customs to stick to whilst travelling. I’m not saying I think it’s fair but I guess it’s a part of travelling to foreign lands which you can’t really get around.

In 2016 we spent 3 months travelling in Sri Lanka and what an incredible experience it was. The food, the people, the culture, the nature… it all blended together to make our time on the island truly unforgettable. It was hard to deny though, no matter how friendly the locals were, it was a much more relaxing trip for me as a male traveller than it was for my partner, Sarah

In all the religious buildings we entered we felt welcomed but it did take some time to get the dress code right, particularly for Sarah. People were generally very friendly, but not before a few inquisitive stares her way, as it was a surprise to see a fair-skinned female traveller in a dusty old temple in the middle of nowhere.

After 3 months I’d rather dropped my guard, and got used to less dress code rules to worry about. When visiting temples, I’d just slip off my shoes and wander in. In the north though things were slightly different.

We entered a beautiful Hindu temple in Jaffna (Northern Sri Lanka) and I noticed people looking at me rather than Sarah. The stares continued until a male worshipper in just white hareem trousers came to me and pointed at my chest and then pointed back to his. I didn’t understand. He then pointed to the rest of the worshippers, all wearing white hareem trousers, but I still didn’t understand. It wasn’t until he led me outside and showed me the sign which said ‘please remove your shirt’ did I realise I was meant to take my top off.

A simple mistake but I did look like a prize numpty for the few minutes whilst the boy was trying to explain!”

Thailand | Even the dogs stood still!

Can you imagine what it would be like to be happily wandering through a market, munching on a tasty snack when everyone around you suddenly stops still and stares at you! Quite surreal and disconcerting I should imagine. This is exactly what happened to Dani and Jess from Globetrotter Girls.

Jess from the travel blog Globetrotter Girls enjoying street food in a market in Chiang Mai about to experience a cultural misunderstanding“There is nothing we love more in Thailand than walking through the night markets. Dani and I can stroll along for hours sampling vegetarian street food for under $1 a plate. We arrived quite early once to the Sunday Night Walking Market in Chiang Mai and were almost squealing in delight sampling a delicious potato-chip-on-a-stick concoction when we suddenly realized how quiet it had gotten for a bustling night market. Looking up from the stick, tongue still wrapped around the salty edge of a crisp potato chip, I saw thousands of tolerant Thai eyes warning us to be silent as they all stood still like statues.

Music played over speakers placed on every street throughout the entire 10 block radius of the market. We quickly froze and the colour of beet red rose up our necks into our cheeks and we stood unsure of what was happening, with only a faint sense that we weren’t in danger or suddenly part of a video game.

It turns out that at exactly 6 pm, every single market visitor and vendor, seemingly even stray dogs, stop to pay tribute to the king as the national anthem plays over the loudspeakers. We quickly learned that the Thai national anthem is played every day at 8 am and 6 pm in public spaces and on television and luckily never made that mistake again.”

Thailand | Giving alms in a Buddhist temple

When Wendy from The Nomadic Vegan first visited Thailand with her husband, they were eager to participate in the morning ritual of giving alms to monks. She explained, “In cities and towns all over the country, Buddhist monks roam the streets in the early hours of the morning with their alms bowls tucked under their arms, in the hopes of receiving offerings. Since they are not supposed to earn or spend money, this is how they meet their basic needs. And the lay people who give them the offerings earn merit this way, so it’s a win-win situation. We had also heard about one temple in Bangkok where the monks line up outside and wait for people to come to them. Most people give food, or sometimes toiletries and other practical items.
We were aware that monks in Thailand eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, so after looking around at a local market, we settled on a tube of toothpaste and a big bag of rice. After all, Thai people eat rice almost every day, so the monks should love it, right?

At the temple, we singled out one of the monks standing in line and put our offerings in his bowl. The bag of rice was so large that there was hardly any room for anything else. Only later did we find out that you’re supposed to give them food that’s ready to eat because they don’t cook their own food. We felt rather silly and wondered what our poor chosen monk had done with all that uncooked rice. Surely the toothpaste was useful, though?”

Thailand | Be careful where you tread

Cultural cock-ups, Laurel RobbinsStill in Thailand, met Laurel from the blog Monkeys and Mountains with another tale of cultural misunderstandings.

“I was riding on a crowded bus in Thailand, fiddling with my change purse. I accidentally dropped a coin and immediately reached out my foot to stop it. Normally Thai people are incredibly polite and friendly, but all of a sudden, everyone was glaring at me – clearly, I had done something wrong. I spoke a little bit of Thai and asked the women next to me what I had done wrong. It turns out that by stepping on the coin, I had stepped on the revered King’s head (the highest part of the body) with my feet (the lowest part of the body). Inadvertently I had insulted their beloved King in the worst possible way in Thai culture. I apologized profusely and explained that I hadn’t meant to insult the King, but was shamed off of the bus, three stops later. I learned that sometimes even a simple, seemingly harmless gesture can be a faux-pas.”

 

Cultural cock-ups in Europe

England | An Indian Wedding

Cultural cock-ups, Ana aka Mrs OAna, who writes the luxury blog, Mrs O Around the World, is originally from Portugal but now lives in England has fallen foul at a wedding closer to home.

“On one of my first visits to London, I was invited to an Indian wedding. When asked (by the hotel waiter) if I wanted some wine, I obviously said yes – I got a lot of stares but didn’t think much of it. Later I found out that I was the only person drinking at the event. I felt so embarrassed – but I truly didn’t know that Hindus did not drink!”

 

 

Greece | Easily made misunderstandings

Keith fro the travel blog, The Travel Rat shares some of his experiences of cultural misunderstandingsKeith Kellet, otherwise known as the Travel Rat, remembers almost coming to a nasty end, quite literally, this time in Greece.

“I was driving along a road in Crete, congratulating myself on the fact that, although I haven’t driven on the right-hand side of the road for some time, I had, so far, managed to stay on the correct side. Then, I came upon road works, which restricted the passage. Coming the other way was a large truck, which flashed its lights at me, so I started moving. It was nearly the last thing I ever did! I was told later that the flashing of the lights meant not ‘Go Ahead!’ as it does in England and most other places I’ve driven in but ‘Get out of my way! I’m coming through!’

I remember on another occasion when I found out again that what may mean one thing to me may mean something else to others and again this was in Greece.

On a visit to the St. John monastery, on Patmos, I saw a robed, magnificently black-bearded priest sitting in the shade reading a newspaper. An excellent photo opportunity, I thought, and I asked if I could take his picture… or rather, since he didn’t speak English, produced my camera, and smiled, with an interrogatively-raised eyebrow.

He shook his head, and said something that sounded like ‘Nay’, so I put my camera away, and walked away.

And, it was only later I learned that ‘nei’ is Greek for ‘yes’ and it’s usually accompanied by a shaking of the head, rather than a nod!”

Oia, Santorini, Greece

Spain | Learning to appreciate local heritage

Danni from LiveIn10Countries.com recalls a mortifying moment when the penny drops and she realises how insensitive she is being.
“Some years ago I went on a 4 week sabbatical in Spain. I was in that gorgeous country around the warm months when there are a lot of ferias, incredible processions and local festivities. I saw the celebrations for San Bernabe in Madrid, El Rocio and the Semana Santa in Sevilla. Foolishly, I got into complaining a lot about the closure of facilities for these saints’ days. While it does make it difficult to buy things, these celebrations are important to local people and being corrected on that taught me a lot. It helped me to understand that we’re privileged visitors when we get to see these rare events, sometimes by invite only. It isn’t our heritage, so it’s a good time to be grateful and enjoy, not talk about how hard it is to get groceries at the local supermarket for a few days. Definitely, a lesson learned!”

Turkey | A walk along Abraham’s Path

Journalist Matthew Teller tells about his worst cultural misunderstandingThere is a path that runs from the putative birthplace of Abraham from southern Turkey, through Syria, Jordan and on to Palestine ending in Hebron where Abraham’s tomb is. Matthew Teller, a well-respected and knowledgeable journalist, came unstuck while walking part of this path with a small group, as they passed through a little village in the far south-east of Turkey.

The village was expecting them and had erected a tent where they gathered. Greetings were exchanged and the walkers were given a light snack including an apple. Matthew, not wanting the apple, asked some nearby children if they would like it. One kid nodded and Matthew threw him the apple. “I just tossed the apple to him. He caught it and suddenly the people started shouting and screaming ‘What are you doing?’ ‘How can you do that?’ ” Although this was in Arabic so he couldn’t understand exactly what they were saying he understood well enough the sentiment of their words. “There was a whole big kerfuffle. I found out that you only throw food to animals. By throwing food, I was calling the village children a pig or a dog or a goat. I was casting aspersions on the children of this village. I didn’t know. I genuinely didn’t know. I’d been travelling in the region for quite a while and I hadn’t come across that one before.”

Profuse apologies followed this cultural misunderstanding but it took the villagers a while to calm down and Matthew, with his group, slinked away embarrassed and feeling like bumbling foreigners.

 

Cultural mishaps in North America

Mexico | Learning a new language

When Daniel from Layer Culture travels, he always tries to learn at least some of the local language. “One of the things I have found to help me be able to connect with locals and get a deeper understanding of the local culture is learning the language. However, whilst getting to grips with Spanish, I have had some mistakes along the way. Some of which have been socially awkward and others, in hindsight, were terribly funny.
Engaging with Mexican customs by getting to meet locals and living with my host family was a great experience. But one day, my confidence had gotten ahead of me. It’s safe to say though that this is a misunderstanding that could be easily be made by anyone learning a language. When one of the members of my host family asked for me to give him a glass, which in Spanish is pronounced baso, I managed to confuse the word baso with beso, which means kiss. So, I was about to give my host’s uncle a kiss on the cheek right before realizing that he’d asked me for one of the glasses in front of me. Luckily, I had stopped myself seconds before planting my lips on his face. The rest of the family at the table roared with laughter at my innocent mistake.
When learning a new language it is easy to make a blunder and it can lead to a cultural misunderstanding. Luckily for me, I was in a safe environment where my mistakes were not be taken seriously.”

USA | Big mistake in the Big Apple

When Suzanne from The Travelbunny, decided to visit an old friend in America, little did she now that she’d be following in Patty Hearst’s footsteps!

Suzanne Courtney, from the travel blog, The Travelbunny, holding a huge ice cream cone with a equally huge grin on her face“It was September and I was in New York for a week staying with an old school friend who lived near Central Park. I was really excited to get out and hit the streets for our first day of sightseeing. It was sunny and warm and I was wearing a t-shirt, pumps and white shorts. Just as we were leaving the apartment my friend said ‘Are you sure you want to wear white? – In New York no-one wears white after Labor Day’ (first Monday in September). I laughed and said,’ No, it’s fine. It’s like summer out there.’ And thought, how ridiculous. Big mistake.

We got the subway downtown and everything was fine until we stepped out onto the busy street. As we walked along people were actually stopping in their tracks and watching me walk by. People in their dark burgundy trousers, grey jackets and black suits just blatantly stared at me. I’d have got less attention if I’d been dressed as a storm-trooper. After about ten minutes I felt so uncomfortable I went and bought a pair of jeans!

A point to note that, as punishment for breaking this ‘rule’ in the 1994 film Serial Mom, Patty Hearst’s character was murdered!

Just thinking back on this makes me cringe it was so embarrassing!”

When I first read Suzanne’s story I was really perplexed. I’d certainly never heard of this before, mind you I’ve never been to New York, or anywhere in the Americas for that matter. For anyone like me who finds this all rather curious, this article in TIME U.S. doesn’t really help much either! Are you from the US and do you know the meaning behind this rule of etiquette?

USA | Crossing cowboys in Texas

Lesley from Freedom 56 Travel, puts her foot in her mouth when visiting friends in Texas.

“A friend of a friend was kind enough to let us stay at their cattle ranch for the weekend while we were road-tripping around Texas. As a Canadian, I was awestruck by the Texas way of life and was intensely curious about it, from the courtly cowboy manners to the armadillos we kept seeing on the sides of the roads (alive and otherwise).

While making polite dinner table conversation over cornbread and chilli, I asked the questions of the big-hatted cattle rancher:  ‘How many head of cattle do you have?’, followed up with ‘How big is this ranch?’

Well. You could have heard a pin drop. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had unknowingly asked our host the double-barreled Texas equivalent of “How much money do you have?

At the time, I didn’t know why our host dodged my question and quickly changed the subject, but thankfully I let it go!  I didn’t know how rude my questions had been until I picked up a book at the airport that explained a few Texas social customs, among which was to never ask a rancher the size of his spread, and exactly what that question meant.  I was horribly embarrassed to learn of my awful social faux pas but hoped that our kind host had simply chalked it up to weird Canadian social mores!

 

Body talk

Following on from Keith’s experience in Greece, here’s a quick round-up of some other cultural differences in body language.

Eye contact

In most Western cultures it’s important to make eye contact and look directly into someone’s eyes when you are talking to them. It’s a sign of honesty when you are talking and an interest in what the other person is saying when someone is talking to you. In some cultures, however, including West Africa, it is disrespectful for a child to make eye contact with an adult. I remember being told, when I met the Alkalo of a village (the village elder) in The Gambia, that I should not look him directly in the eyes. It’s very hard to do over a period of time when you have been brought up to do the opposite.

Yes & No

In Bulgaria shaking the head from left to right also means “yes” and nodding, which for most of us means “yes“, in Bulgaria means “no“. In parts of India, I’ve also noticed that “yes” is often accompanied by a shaking of the head from left to right with a bit of a twisting nod?! Still with me?

Thumbs up

Hand gestures can also be confusing. A thumbs-up sign is a good thing in most parts of the world but NOT in Brazil where it is a very rude insult.

The OK Sign

The hand sign that makes a circle with the thumb and index finger means ‘Okay’ or ‘all is good’ in many countries but in France, it means ‘zero’ or ‘worthless’. In Japan, I’ve heard it used to mean money but to the younger generation it’s now more likely to mean ‘OK’. While in Brazil and Turkey it’s used as an insult.

The ‘V’ sign

In the US I’m told the peace sign (holding up the first two fingers with them held apart to form a ‘V’) can be done with your palm facing towards you or away. Is that true? It certainly would not do in the UK, Australia and South Africa. Here in England if your palm is facing away from you that means ‘peace’ but if the palm is facing towards you that means something entirely different! Basically, if you did that to me you’d be telling me to ‘get lost’ in the very strongest and rudest of terms!

You may think that the safest thing to do is keep your hands in your pockets when talking but in some cultures, or so I’ve read, that is quite obnoxious.

 

Thanks to everyone for sharing their travel tales of cultural misunderstandings. If you have a similar story I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

 

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