Etiquette experts share the faux pas Americans should avoid during international travel.
The experience of COVID lockdowns and border closures over the past couple of years has given many Americans a newfound appreciation for the privilege of international travel. This summer, the tourism industry saw a huge rebound in the form of “revenge travel” to far-off places.
Unfortunately, Americans don’t have the best reputation as tourists abroad. But that doesn’t mean you have to add to the “ugly American” stereotype as you reenter the international travel game.
“It is imperative to avoid an egocentric view of the world while traveling,” travel blogger Rocky Trifari told HuffPost. “You should always mind your manners abroad because etiquette can differ from one country to the next.”
Though the intricacies and nuances of every culture may feel intimidating, there are some fundamental etiquette principles that can guide each trip. An easy way to approach etiquette abroad is to think about what not to do.
With that in mind, we asked etiquette experts and travel professionals to share some common rude behaviors they’ve observed from tourists in foreign countries and lend their advice for avoiding these faux pas.
“While specific etiquette rules may differ around the world, good manners is universal,” said Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and co-host of the “Were You Raised by Wolves?” podcast. “Treating people with kindness and respect translates into every language.”
Assuming Everyone Will Speak English
“Do not presume that everyone you encounter will speak English,” said Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “Know a few phrases in the local language. Do not speak louder hoping that the other person will suddenly understand you.”
Before your trip, try to learn a bit of the local language and customs to ensure a more pleasant experience.
“Whether you’re in a restaurant or shop, saying ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ in the local language can go a long way,” said Jessica van Dop DeJesus, founder and editor at The Dining Traveler. “I also love using Google Translate to communicate while traveling. It’s a great tool to bridge communication in a foreign country. I recently traveled to Japan, and being able to write what I needed in Japanese at restaurants helped me get around much better.”
Not Doing Your Research
“You’ll have a better time if you know what to expect, so best to brush up on the local etiquette rules before you set sail,” Leighton said. “These etiquette rules are definitely not a secret, and there’s virtually no corner of the globe that hasn’t been covered online somewhere. Just look it up!”
You can avoid awkward or frustrating situations by just doing a little research before your trip.
“Learning about a culture’s etiquette is part of the fun of travel, and you’ll have a richer travel experience if you fully participate,” Leighton added. “A few fun international tips: Don’t cheers with beer in Hungary, be sure to say ‘bonjour’ when entering a shop in France and always hand out your business card with two hands in Japan.”
Being Loud And Rowdy
“One of the things I see a lot, especially living in Europe, is U.S. citizens speaking loudly on the phone, and the whole restaurant or bar can hear the conversation,” van Dop DeJesus noted.
Avoid adding to negative stereotypes about Americans by taking phone calls outside or being mindful of your volume, especially while you’re speaking English. Try to avoid making noise in other ways, like slamming car doors or stomping around.
“Practice vocal level control,” Abbott echoed. “It doesn’t matter your age, be it youth to well-seasoned, ‘thou shalt not yell’ or be obnoxious in any way no matter how tired you are, no matter what ‘everybody else is doing,’ no matter how much alcohol you’ve had.”
She also urged against drinking too much alcohol in a foreign country.
“This isn’t just about turning into that proverbial ‘ugly American’ but also about the increased risk of turning into just another visiting foreigner victim,” Abbott said, noting that drunk tourists are often targets for petty crime. “You would do well both in proper etiquette and keeping yourself out of bad situations to dial it back a bit on the alcohol if you’re so inclined.”
Ignoring Local Tipping Culture
“Know that tipping varies greatly around the world,” Smith said. “Some countries thrive on tips while others will find a tip insulting.”
If you don’t know the tipping protocol in another country, do your research or ask a trusted source to find out the cultural norms before ordering a meal at a restaurant there. Although tipping is standard practice in the U.S., that isn’t the case everywhere.
“Under most circumstances, it would be considered rude to pay for a meal without leaving a supplemental tip in the U.S.,” Trifari said. “In some countries, a tip is only left for exceptional service. It can be a token amount, perhaps one or two dollars in the local currency, if the service is outstanding. In other places, leaving a tip may even be perceived as offensive.”
Forgetting You’re A Visitor
“Perhaps the best way to make sure you are a respectful traveler is by having the mindset that you’re just a visitor in a foreign land,” Lau said. “You’re not there to change things or to do things the way you would do them at home. You’re there to experience the local culture and learn about new customs.”
Rather than insisting things be done your preferred way or complaining about unfamiliar experiences, be polite and humble. Think of yourself as a guest in a stranger’s home. And remember that your behavior reflects on yourself and the U.S. as a whole.
“The beginning and end of proper behavior, be it in the U.S. or most other countries popularly visited by U.S. citizens, be respectful, be gracious and keep in mind that you are ambassadors of this fine country,” Abbott said.
Failing To Adhere To Facial And Spatial Norms
Smith emphasized that cultural differences often manifest in faces and spaces, so do your best to understand the norms around things like eye contact and personal bubbles.
“Some countries have smiles at the ready while others only smile with their nearest and dearest,” she explained. “Eye contact is also culturally specific. The more egalitarian cultures tend to have more eye contact. The more rigid cultures tend to have less eye contact.”
Trifari recommended thinking about common gestures or movements like nodding as well.
“In Athens, I learned that Greeks typically do not nod or shake their heads to communicate the same way Americans are accustomed to,” he said. “In Greece, this gesture can be considered impolite. To indicate ‘no,’ Greeks tilt the head backward once; nodding the head forward to signal ‘yes.’ If you find yourself uncertain, using the local language to communicate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can help avoid any confusion or fears of sending the wrong message.”
The typical amount of touch and distance between people in public places can also vary.
“Many cooler climates tend to have larger body-space bubbles, whereas many warmer climates tend to have smaller body-space bubbles,” Smith explained. “Even standing in line is culturally specific. Pay careful attention to how others queue before taking your place.”
“Travelers need to make sure they wear something appropriate for the religious sites,” Lauderdale noted. “We all want to look our best on vacation, but something revealing might not be welcomed in a religious place of worship.”
In addition to preparing for different temperatures, take respect for local culture into account when you pack for your trip. Your favorite sneakers, fanny packs and sleeveless shirts might not be the right attire every step of the way. And even if you’re going somewhere very hot, try to pack at least one outfit that provides more cover (in a lightweight, breathable fabric).
“Know what to wear. There are places, from religious sites to entire countries, where modesty is required,” Smith said. “Some locations also ‘dress for dinner.’ This may require formal or semi-formal attire as well as the requisite footwear.”
And on the subject of clothing, make sure you familiarize yourself with the rules around shoes when you enter someone’s home or certain establishments. In many cultures, there’s an expectation that guests will remove their shoes at the door.
Behaving Improperly At Sacred Sites
In addition to dressing respectfully while visiting religious sites and other places of deep significance to locals, you’ll want to show reverence in your behavior. You may not be familiar with the traditions and culture surrounding the religion in question, but always err on the side of being quiet and courteous of others.
“Temples, churches and other places of worship are usually very beautiful and grandiose, which leads to many travelers wanting to capture the perfect photo,” Lauderdale said. “However, when doing so, you could be interfering with people praying or other religious ceremonies.”
“Because you are in a foreign country, you might exhibit rude behaviors or faux pas without knowing. One of the most common ones is actually bargaining,” Lau said.
Of course, many countries and cities have marketplaces where negotiating over prices is the norm, but that isn’t true everywhere. And even if it is, the rules can vary. As always, do your research.
“Bargaining can be disrespectful, especially if you are in a place where bargaining is not acceptable,” Lau explained. “But even in places where bargaining is acceptable, you can still anger the locals by bargaining incorrectly. If the vendor tells you a price and you respond by low-balling him, he might be insulted and kick you out of his shop.”
Not Following Time Norms
Different cultures carry different expectations for timing and scheduling. Smith explained that some places follow more “linear” notions of time, while others are more “circular” or “cyclical,” for instance.
“Linear cultures tend to keep careful time,” Smith said. “It is important that you are right on time ― or early ― for reservations or gatherings. Circular cultures tend to be time fluid. When making plans, the timing is more of a suggestion than the rule.”
Greeting People Rudely
“Greeting a friend can look very different depending on which part of the world you are in,” Trifari said. “Cultural differences can result in a warm welcome being perceived as cold, rigid or otherwise inappropriate.”
Indeed, certain gestures or movements that indicate one thing in the U.S. might have a very different meaning in other countries.
“In the Netherlands, it is considered rude to shout a greeting from afar,” Trifari explained. “The Dutch are modest people, and ostentatious behavior is frowned upon. When greeting someone from a distance, it is better to wave.”
In some places, friends and acquaintances might greet one another with a smile or friendly nod, while in others, people might greet with a kiss or two on the cheek.
As Trifari noted, “knowing what to do — whether you shake their hand, bow, offer them a hug or walk together holding hands — can help to avoid an awkward situation for both parties by knowing what the other person may expect.”
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