How to avoid a cultural faux pas in a foreign country

When you travel to a different country, chances are that the people, language, customs, and social protocols will be very different to your own. One of the most important things to do before travelling is to research the culture of your intended destination – a little bit of local information can prevent many misunderstandings and enhance your travel experience.

I wish I had spent a bit more time doing this before I left to live in Germany. The first few weeks in Germany were difficult for me. Having come from sunny, happy-go-lucky, laid back Cape Town in South Africa, I smiled at passersby (in shopping centres, on buses, etc) and greeted strangers with warmth – as is common social behaviour in my hometown. The default reaction took me aback, and quite honestly hurt my feelings. I was met with a quick nod of the head, or worse, ignored.

I complained about feeling lonely and rejected to my fiancé, who is half-German, and he explained to me what I had been doing wrong. I was imposing my own cultural expectations on to people in a different country, and then getting upset when they didn’t react in the way I was accustomed to – quite unfair, don’t you think? From then on, I made an effort to find out what is and isn’t acceptable in German social protocol.  The more I learned, the more I felt “at home”, and I felt much less isolated. When someone nods hello to me, I take it as a sign of connection, no matter how small. By changing my expectations and gaining some understanding, my whole experience changed.

Communication is also incredibly helpful in situations where you are not quite sure what to do. If you’re worried about offending your host when it comes to differences in culture, simply ask them how they do things. Making an effort to get to know the culture and integrating yourself into it gives you an authentic travel experience, and by connecting with others and sharing your own culture, you may even make lifelong friends.

So, before you take off on your adventure, bear in mind the cultures you will be coming into contact with, and prepare yourself accordingly.

Happy travels!


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