Visiting a new country offers you a chance to learn about and experience new and unique ways of living. Norms of behaviour, mannerisms, and communication, such as the way people eat to the way they greet each other, differ from culture to culture.
When traveling, it’s important to familiarize yourself with your host country’s traditions and customs in order to be respectful and to not cause offence to locals as a visitor. Awareness is your best bet at avoiding being caught off guard with surprise when you make a cultural faux pas and are subsequently scoffed at, yelled at, kicked out, fined, or even arrested.
Here are some etiquette rules and laws from around the world that may shock you. You’ll be glad you read it here first!
Illegal activity at popular tourist sites
Due to issues that have emerged as a result of overtourism, cities have begun fining people for conduct that leads to crowdedness and damages to tourist attractions and historical structures. All of the following acts are illegal and some will warrant a fine if you’re caught in violation of the law: sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome, feeding the pigeons at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, wearing high heels at archeological sites in Greece, and running out of fuel on the autobahn in Germany.
No tips in Japan, please!
In Japan, tipping service workers is not expected nor accepted. Not only is gratuity not customary, in most cases, if you try to leave a tip for your server for their great service, your offer will be refused! The people of Japan pride themselves on their exceptional hospitality as the norm, not as an exception, therefore tips are unnecessary for guests to give. In this case, words of gratitude will suffice.
Better late than on time in Mexico
Chronic latecomers will appreciate this cultural norm. You may be used to considering punctuality as a sign of courtesy and respect, but in Mexico, being late for a scheduled event or meeting is socially acceptable. In fact, being early or on time is actually seen as rude, whereas arriving up to 30 minutes past a scheduled commitment is what is expected. The bottom line here is, take your sweet time when travelling in Mexico!
The right way
In some countries, using your left hand for eating or other activities is considered insulting. This is due to the fact that one’s left hand is likely to be used in the bathroom and is therefore deemed as unsanitary. This rule applies to several places around the world, including parts of the Middle East, Sri Lanka, India, and Africa. To be safe, always use your right hand for eating, greeting, exchanging money, and holding objects when you’re in these locations.
Watch your hand gestures
Be careful of using hand gestures in different countries, as what may be interpreted as a sign of respect or kindness in your culture may have a backward or negative association in another nation. For example, where a thumbs up is a sign of approval in North America, in Russia, Greece, Iran, and West Africa, the same gesture is the equivalent of “flipping the bird” at someone.
Keep it clean in Singapore
Maintaining cleanliness in the busy city streets is a top priority in Singapore. It is prohibited to eat, drink, smoke, litter, spit, and even chew gum on the street or on public transport. Breaching any of these rules is not seen as a mere blunder, but rather a punishable offence by law. Any violations will find you facing big fines of up to $2,000. When in doubt of whether or not you’ll be leaving a mess behind by taking a snack break, don’t.
No camouflage in the Caribbean
In 13 countries in the Caribbean, the wearing of camouflage print apparel and accessories for non-members of the military is banned. If you land in Antigua, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, Nigeria, Oman, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Trinidad and Tobago, Zambia, or Zimbabwe with camo gear on, you will be asked to change into new clothes if you’re lucky, or fined or apprehended if you’re not so lucky. These strict ‘no camouflage’ laws are said to be centered on preventing any confusion between members of the public and military on patrol.
Don’t be a back seat passenger
You may be used to getting into the back seat of a cab, but in certain countries, riding in the front is seen as more appropriate. In the Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, or Australia, you’ll be seen as impolite and stuck-up if you opt to sit behind the taxi driver instead of taking the open spot in the passenger seat. When taking a taxi in those countries, ride shotgun and dare to engage the driver in some pleasant small talk.
Don’t photograph the Eiffel Tower at night
When in Paris, one must take a photo of the iconic Eiffel Tower in all of its iron glory. However, don’t do it in the dark! Under European copyright protection laws, works are protected for the lifetime of the designer, in addition to another 70 years. Gustave Eiffel died in 1923, meaning the tower entered public domain in 1993. However, the lights on the tower weren’t installed until 1985. This means that anyone who has captured a picture of the tower’s glittering lights has unknowingly broken the law. You should be safe to share these technically illegal photos with family and friends, but don’t even risk distributing photos of the Eiffel Tower at night!
Worried about things getting lost in translation? Read our blog post on ways you can overcome some language barriers while travelling.