Culture Clashes



'Si fueris Romae Romano vivito more'. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But what happens when cultures clash? When travelling, it can sometimes be difficult to remember all regulations, traditions, social habits and rules of conduct. Do you tip, and if so, how much? Do you take off your shoes indoors? Do you shake hands, hug or bow? Not to mention the misunderstanding due to language barriers. Sometimes when what you do is not in accordance with local traditions, it's just an embarrassing minor faux pas. In other situations, you may have committed a tactless blunder. My experience is that people tend to turn their blind eye to your fumblings, as long as they recognize you are at least trying. The pages in this section are taken from my old weblog, where I recorded some of the subtle differences I came across when moving about in the world. And the small differences are part of the attraction of visiting other places, at least for me.

Please select a topic or country from the dropdown list in the top menu in order to read about my experience and thoughts. Not everything is connected to travelling. I also share my thoughts on subcultures and random oddities I come across.


I am no expert within the field of body language or social conduct. The following is based upon my own observation and experience:

In some countries it's considered polite to look into the eyes of the person you are talking to. In other countries constant eye contact would be considered rude. Then again, in other places it's a sexual invite.

Punctuality is a virtue where I come from. In other parts of the world they may have a more relaxed attitude towards time and a timetable may be considered a rough guide

Pointing with your forefinger can be regarded rude, even agressive. Especially if it's in the direction of a person. I believe they use their thumbs in Indonesia.

Crossing your legs in public or pointing your toes in the direction of other people may be considered rude, e.g. in Thailand.

In the Philippines, if you invite someone out to a restaurant, it is considered polite to let your guest order first and then order something similar yourself, or simpler (never more luxurious).

I grew up being taught that eating everything on your plate is a sign that you enjoyed the food. Only to find out that in some countries it means you didn't particularly like the food. That you did not ask for more. And leaving a little food on the plate means you have eaten all you could and it was delicious. Confusing. (Not to mention wasting the food).

In some Asian countries it's considered impolite if you pour your own drink.

In some countries the thumbs up and/or OK sign (thumb and forefinger making a circle) is considered rude, perhaps even vulgar.

Displaying the soles of your feet or touching someone with your shoes is considered rude in certain countries.

I've noticed that many places in the Middle East and North Africa handshakes may last very long, and you can see two men hold hands while walking together.

Tipping can be considered rude in Japan. I learned that the hard way.

The above is not meant as a raised finger. But now at least you may have an indication of what you may have done 'wrong'. Do what you consider the best in the given situation. The people you meet abroad learn from us as well. And it's happened to me more than once that my social interaction faux pas was a good icebreaker and conversation starter.

© emenel 2020