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You want me to do what?: Interesting international etiquette

By  Jemma Young February 3, 2012

Understanding how to behave in a foreign land can save you time, money, and respect. It can also make the unfamiliar much less scary and much more humorous.  

Cultural experiences are one of the most glorious gifts an international experience can provide. Learning about new ways of life, cuisine and customs, is in fact what motivates many of us to pack up and stray from the safety of our comfort zone. And depending on where exactly you go in the world, you just may find yourself really removed from what you consider normal. Normal here, of course, is a completely relative concept. What I deem to be socially acceptable may be largely offensive, hilarious, or shocking to someone across the pond. Many of the awkward or peculiar situations you can encounter, however, are avoidable with a little research and a lot of questions. Some on the other hand, not so much. New traditions emerge and times change, so before a voyage to the unfamiliar, prepare yourself for some pretty exotic etiquette.

Although I would argue that people are inherently the same no matter where you are born, it cannot be denied that we do many things very differently. Factors like economics, heritage and religion (and the list goes on) are responsible for shaping why and how we do or don’t do certain things. From an outsider’s perspective, many of these practices, albeit abnormal, can be understood for reasons mentioned previously. Some, on the other hand, no matter how hard you try to rationalize, are just plain and simply weird.

We’re going to take a brief, yet interesting journey across the globe looking at various cultural customs - you can decide for yourself where they lie on your scale of strangeness. Remember, if you’re intending on travelling to any of the countries discussed below, you may want to pay particular attention to save yourself any unnecessary and unwanted embarrassment...or worse.

As in much of Latin America, it is customary for people to drink liquids (particularly juice and soda) out of plastic bags with straws. It is also totally normal to toss the bag on the ground when finished - adding to the piles of garbage which litter the beautiful land. So, no need to feel like you’re being treated like a child (remember in elementary school when you used to receive milk in a bag), everyone is served this way.

If you’re travelling in Brazil with little or no fluency in Portuguese, be cautious about how you communicate with locals. Hand gestures, generally, are a safe bet and typically an effective means of overcoming language barriers; however, there are certain instances in which signs do not carry universal meanings. For instance, DO NOT give a waitress, for example, the “A-OK” sign to indicate your meal is excellent. What you’re saying to him/her will definitely earn you a big wad of “cuspo” in your dessert.

Deep in the jungle, a primitive tribe, commonly referred to as the Yanomamo, cremates their deceased and grinds their bones into powder. They then eat or drink the mixture as a means of keeping their loved ones with them. Although you will likely never encounter this first-hand - unless you get lost or are doing some sort of research study - it goes to show how much family means to people around the world (and how nothing is wasted when your resources are thin).

Don’t be alarmed if you walk into a tapas bar (serve variety of apps, like a snack bar) and find napkins and other rubbish tossed on the floor. Do not start picking it up and don’t ask for a garbage pail, just join in. In fact, the dirtier the restaurant the better the food!

If you see an elder spitting on a newborn, you have not gone mad. Spitting three times on a baby is a traditional way to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. As a foreigner however, I wouldn’t suggest partaking in this custom. Leave it to the Greeks.

If you’re looking to relax, be aware of which services you sign up for at the spa. A popular trend sweeping the globe, which has it roots in Turkey, is a body exfoliation service using fish - that’s right, the slippery and slimy underwater creatures. Feeding fish, about the size of minnows, join you in a warm pool feasting on your dead skin. The technique has been noted for its treatment against painful skin conditions, like psoriasis.

All relationships in Indian culture involve hierarchies and people are conscious of their social order and status relative to other people. So, when meeting new people, greet the eldest or most “senior” person first. It is common to do so by shaking hands, but understand that there are seldom handshakes between men and women because of religious beliefs. When in doubt, wait for the other to extend their hand.

Tipping in most cities within China, excluding major metropolises like Hong Kong and Beijing, is not the norm. Leaving a gratuity can be offensive and confusing for the receiver as it is seldom expected for one to pay more than the stated price. With increasing tourism and modernization to the East, tipping is becoming more accepted though; so look around, if others are doing it so should you.

Watch the way you sit, you may be sending signals without knowing it. As the lowest part of the body, the feet are given low spiritual esteem. Therefore, it is considered rude to point your toes at another person as it is demeaning to the person at whom the foot is pointed. Also, apologize immediately if you accidentally touch someone with your foot.

As in many Eastern cultures, it is considered extremely impolite to point with the left hand or index finger. The left hand is considered unclean as it is reserved for bodily hygiene and thus should not be used to point or shake. The “thumbs-up” sign is also considered a rude gesture so be sure to point with your thumb on top of your closed fist (like how you would hold a fishing rod or golf club).

Predicated on an old wives tale, children in Japan cover their belly buttons during a thunderstorm to protect them from the lighting gods who will otherwise steal them. So, if you happen to be teaching overseas and a storm develops, don’t panic if all the children are clutching their stomachs in fear.

A rather odd but typical custom down under revolves around drinking (surprise, surprise). The homeless, backpackers, and young people are known to buy 4 litre casks of wine that retail at $10 a pop. When they are finished, they blow up the bag and use it as a pillow. Now that’s what I call killing two birds with one stone.

There you have it, a small taste of some pretty interesting international etiquette. Many of the above are definitely unorthodox in comparison to Western society, but we have to remember too that not everything we do appears normal to others. For instance, (apologies in advance for the majorly stereotypical references) you can’t blame people for thinking Canadians are weird for our love of the freezing cold winters or our incessant need to apologize (sorry!). These cultural differences, however, should be embraced and let’s face it, many of them make sense and should be adopted by people worldwide (especially the no tipping!). Understanding a culture’s customs before entering that territory, although not essential, is a good idea. Not only may it save you from mass confusion or having your tapioca spat in, but it may also help you make peace with the locals and save you some much-needed dough.

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