How To Not Look Like An Idiot Abroad (Or Offend The Locals)

29th Jun 2016 Travel Tips

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Are you a tourist or a traveller? When it comes to holidaying overseas most people think these two terms mean the same thing, but those in the know understand there are some very big differences. Tourists stick out like sore thumbs with their ugly shirts, glossy guidebooks and complete lack of consideration for local practices. Travellers on the other hand, know their stuff. They travel light, aren’t afraid to try the local cuisine and they understand and respect the customs of the local people.

Whether you’re travelling to some far off exotic land or just a couple of hours by plane to our friendly neighbours in Fiji, we’ve put together a collection of some of the most common cultural considerations for a variety of holiday destinations around the world. With this advice in mind, you’ll graduate from clueless tourist to savvy traveller in no time, avoiding awkward and possibly offensive situations no matter how far or how wide you roam.

Fiji

Although the Fijian culture is one of most friendly and relaxed cultures on earth, it’s important to respect their customs. Wear modest clothing when visiting a village and be sure to take off your hat, as not doing so is considered an insult to the chief. If invited into a home, remove your shoes and leave them at the door before entering. It’s also an insult to touch someone on the head, so be sure to keep this in mind when the local children come along with their broad smiles and gorgeous big eyes. Don’t be surprised if the locals ask you personal questions such as whether you are married and how many children you have, this is very common practice.

Hawaii

Lei’s have become synonymous with Hawaii and no visit to the islands would be complete without receiving one. In Hawaiian culture, the lei is presented as a welcoming gesture offered in friendship and should not be removed in public, as this is considered rude. The larger and more elaborate the lei, the more important the person or occasion.

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Dubai

Although more liberal than most Islamic Arab nations, Dubai’s official religion is Islam and the culture is still strictly governed by its customs. Travellers should never criticise any aspects of Islam and should also avoid negativity towards the government. Although bikinis and swimsuits are acceptable on the beaches, elsewhere you should dress modestly. Even in the privacy of your hotel pool, revealing swimsuits are not advised. Swearing or obscene gestures attract a fine and in some cases even jail time, so it’s important to avoid this type of behaviour at all times.

Thailand

It’s also taboo to touch a person’s head in Thailand as the Thai people believe it is the most sacred part of the body. It’s also considered rude to wear revealing clothing, blow your nose (do this privately where possible), show anger or impatience or lick your fingers while eating. Pointing with your feet is also deeply insulting as the feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body. In place of shaking hands, the customary greeting in Thai culture is known as the wai, which is done by placing your hands together and bowing your head as you raise your hands.

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Hong Kong

The fast-paced lifestyle of Hong Kong means people are often in a hurry and many locals simply don’t have time for formalities. The phrase ‘m goi’ roughly translates to 'I should not (bother you)' and is used in place of pleasantries like ‘thank you’ or ‘excuse me’. Tea is a long-standing tradition in Hong Kong and it is customary to tap two or three fingers on the top of the table in order to thank the person who pours your tea. You might also like to give chopsticks a try in Hong Kong, however visitors should know never to place them into a bowl of rice vertically, as this wishes death on those around you.

Japan

When handing something to someone in Japan, it’s customary to bow and polite to present it with both of your hands. It is rude to point, rather you should gesture with a flat open hand and your palm facing up. If drinking sake or beer in a group, it is visitor etiquette to wait for someone to fill your glass for you, although you’ll never be kept waiting. You should also never step on a tatami mat with shoes or slippers on as this is a big no-no.

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Malaysia

Visitor etiquette in Malaysia is to dress modestly, particularly in rural areas where shoulders should be covered. A long skirt or trousers are advised, however you will find attitudes to be a little more liberal in major metro areas. Although tolerated in larger cities, public affection is also frowned upon, particularly in rural areas where it may attract unwanted attention. In Malaysia, homosexuality is illegal and same-sex relationships are taboo. For their safety, LGBTQ visitors should avoid holding hands and any other public signs of affection.

Singapore

In Singapore, the locals don’t really bother with formal politeness. Most things are accepted in Singapore, including revealing clothing, however public displays of affection are still frowned upon. You may notice what look like swastikas being used commonly across the city, however informed visitors will know not be offended or appear disapproving as these are not Nazi or anti-Semitic symbols, in fact they are religious symbols in the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. It is also forbidden to feed pigeons or monkeys and to chew gum.

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Vietnam

Visitors should exercise sensitivity when discussing the Vietnam War, as over 3 million Vietnamese died in the war and some conversations could offend. Some attractions also present a fairly anti-American perspective on the war’s legacy and visitor etiquette is to acknowledge this without passing comment or attempting to correct this viewpoint. Male visitors should also avoid travelling alone with Asian women. This can attract unwanted attention and may even cause harassment, with the woman insulted as an escort or prostitute.

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