Cultural Customs and Etiquette Before Traveling

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Often times when we are getting ready for a trip to a new city or country, we stock up on all sorts of books that tell us what the best places to visit are, maps to guide us through town and subways, pages with little icons indicating favorite restaurants, bars, clubs, attractions.  But the one thing we don’t always research or read about are those little things that are cultural taboos, or mannerisms that would be considered impolite or rude to those who live in the places we are traveling to.

When I lived in Europe, and also in the Caribbean, there was a term I often heard thrown around amongst the natives when referring to the American tourists. “Ugly American” they would call them.  And they thought they were ugly because they walked around with a certain level of arrogance about them.  A certain disregard for the cultural norms and customs of their surroundings.  It seemed as if, when planning their trip abroad, they gave little consideration, if any, to the importance of learning the small things that would make the server, hotel staff, taxi cab driver, or tour guide feel respected and valued culturally.

That was some years ago.  I think that the disappearing borders of our global society have definitely helped to educate many of us, especially many of us who travel, on the importance of familiarizing ourselves with some level of cultural etiquette and protocal before heading overseas.  If there are some of us who haven’t given it any thought, than I would advise a trip to your local bookstore, or even a quick  search online to read up on some of the “laws of the land”.


As much as you may think you know about a certain culture, believe me when I say, it takes an extra effort to really learn about those traditions that can make or break your cultural experience.  Like for example, when in Mexico, like in most Latin American countries, it is considered most polite to greet with a handshake first and foremost, and when addressing a group, it is best to address each person individually, for doing otherwise is seen as rude and lazy.  However, while in England, it seems to be almost the complete opposite, with touching kept to a very minimum if at all, and space between oneself and others kept more distant. In most countries it is true that even if you can’t fluently speak the native language, the effort is appreciated. The assumption that “they” will speak English should be tossed out of your mind.  “They” might, but “they” don’t have to.

And learning the cultural norms and etiquette is important even if we travel within our own states.  I recently had a visitor from out of state here in New York City who made jokes and comments about the various neighborhoods and parts of the cities we visited.  I was extremely offended, but more so horrified, and realized that not only did this person lack sensitivity, but had just spent a few months of college in Europe, probably representing his country and people in the worst possible way.

So while making the list of things to pack for you and the family for that next trip to Anywhere, take some time to also learn about some cultural norms and etiquette. And even if your travel plans aren’t taking you too far from home, it’s still important to study on these things and talk to your kids about them. Make sure that on your next trip you are not the “Ugly American”.  It will not only improve your cultural experience abroad, but here at home as well.

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