Sometimes words get lost in translation. So we use actions instead. Other times, actions get you beaten up! Some simple gestures or opinions can cause you lots of problems, so be careful. Be mindful of other cultures and learn to appreciate the differences. Here’s cultural awareness 101.
Your culture is not superior to others. No culture is superior to others!
Cultural Dos & Don’ts
- Don’t ever rise you thumb to say “ok, all good” in Iran, as this means “motherf*cker”
- Don’t eat, smoke or drink on the streets during Ramadan period in Muslim countries
- If you are a couple and want to stay together in a hotel, bring your marriage certificate along
- Dress appropriately: cover your skin
- Don’t touch the head of babies in Indonesia even if they are super cute, this is highly disrespectful, they believe this will affect their soul in a bad way
- Don’t stick your chopstick vertically on rice anywhere in Asia, as they believe this will attract bad spirits
- Never ever lie your legs and foot towards a Buddha, while sitting down in a Buddhist temple, they consider foot as dirty
- Don’t take flash photography of newborn babies sleeping. Some families believe that it scares the soul of the baby.
- Avoid talking about LGBT in public in Singapore, especially speaking to someone working in the public sector.
- Age = importance in a group. Allow the oldest to sit first or eat first before you can eat.
- “Saving face” is very important. Avoid behaviour that causes embarrassment for others.
- Dress conservatively, especially around religious sites. Bikinis are not very recommended, especially in rural areas. Nudity is an absolute NO.
- Use both hands to give, pass or receive things.
- Take off your shoes before entering someone’s home!
- People will stare at you if you are different. Sometimes, even sneaking pictures of you. Don’t worry about it, they’re just curious.
- Use your thumb to point instead of your index finger
- Singapore: don’t break the rules. No littering, no chewing gum, no jaywalking, no drugs, only smoke in designated places, no food on the train. It’s a country with many rules. Good luck.
- Thailand & Bhutan & Brunei: they love the royal family a lot. Never show disrespect to the royal family.
- Tibet, Bhutan, Thailand: never tattoo images of Buddha on yourself.
- Public display of affection: not encouraged
- The head is considered a sacred part of the body. Avoid touching someone’s head or messing their hair.
- In general, Western Europeans complain a lot. Don’t take it to heart. They really seem to enjoy complaining about nothing.
- Western Europeans always tease, laugh & joke about neighbouring countries, but it’s more like a brother-sister relationship. They don’t hate each other. In fact, deep down, they love each other very much.
- That “Asian twist”/peace sign? Always show the palm of your hands towards others. If the inside of your palm faces you while you do the sign, it is something vulgar.
- “Rubber” means condoms in many parts of the world. Use “eraser” instead, the thing to remove pencil marks.
- Don’t feel obliged to tip. Service charge is included in restaurants.
- Europeans don’t share tables in restaurants.
- Germany: don’t jaywalk. Follow the rules. Even if it’s 2 am and there is no one on the road, wait for the green man before crossing the road.
- Nudity is very common in Northern-Western Europe: Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands.
- Churches: like temples in Asia, make sure you don’t show too much skin.
- If a French guy is complaining about random things, that’s because he’s happy
- Never show how wealthy you are
- Don’t be afraid when a German driver complains about the crappy roads in Belgium or complains that they can’t drive fast in the Netherlands
- Never ever ever ever do the Nazi salute in Germany (or anywhere in the world for that matter). If you’re flagging for the bus, just stretch your hands out slightly.
- Never say that Germany & Austria are “basically the same country”.
- Germany: Cash is king. The country doesn’t like cards.
- Driving on Germany’s autobahn: if can’t drive, DON’T DRIVE. The Germans really hate people who can’t drive.
- Don’t be offended if a British uses “c*nt”. It’s their way of saying “friend/pal/person”
- The Brits drink as early as 9-am in the morning. Don’t stare and judge them. If they are a nuisance, call the police (999).
- It’s common for the English to call you love, dear, darling, honey.
- Start conversations with “how are you” in England.
- They’re proud of their country. Don’t compare them to France or Germany or Italy.
- Be prepared to eat dinner after 10 pm. No one eats dinner before 8 pm.
- It’s common to call everyone by their first name
How Many Kisses on Cheeks
- Belgians: 1 kiss if you just met, 3 kisses for relatives
- French: 2 kisses
- Germans: handshake
- English: handshake & 2 kisses for close friends/relatives
- Swiss: 3 kisses or handshake
- Italian: 2 kisses
- Spanish: 1 kiss or handshake
- Don’t take pictures of Santorians (people following the Santorian religion), they believe pictures of them will attract bad spirits
- Don’t forget the history of the country you’re in: talking about politics in Cuba or Myanmar, gay wedding in Tanzania or South Africa, or abortion in South America or in the Philippines are tricky issues.
- Don’t forget the life level gaps: avoid saying that you had a super good deal paying just 200 USD for your second-hand powerful smartphone in developing countries like Paraguay and Indonesia. The average monthly income in these countries is less than 200 USD.
The Concept of Time
Time is constantly. We have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It is the same in Singapore, Mexico, Spain or Ghana. Yet, different cultures experience time with a different perspective.
You will soon realize that basics concepts such as time, distance, weather, delays and so on can be very very different between countries. Keep that in mind, it’s a good way to avoid stress!
You will benchmark each country yourself, though I can give you some basic examples, regarding what’s “being on time” for a dinner with friends:
- In Japan, you’re expected to show up 15min before
- In Germany, you’re expected to show up right on time
- In South Africa, you’re expected to be leaving your place at the time of the meeting, and wish for the best about your arrival time!
General Rule-of-Thumb: Cultures & Time
- Be Earlier than Scheduled: China, Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan (East Asia, Central Asia)
- Be On Time: USA, Switzerland, Germany, Anglo-Sazon countries like Scandinavia, UK, the Netherlands.
- Late is fine: Hispanic America, Argentina, Mexico, Mediterranean countries, Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa, Arab countries.