What do these two statements have in common?
- “Still throwing spears?”
- “Oh no, I might catch some ghastly disease”
Well, more than one thing actually. First, they’re classic examples of saying borderline offensive things. Second, they were both said in the same country, Australia; the first was addressed to an Aborigine, and the latter with regards to an offer to stroke a koala. And third, and perhaps most remarkably, they were said by the same person, on two separate occasions, years apart – by none other than the recently retired Prince Philip.
These are quite extreme examples, from a man notorious for being extraordinarily gaffe prone and culturally insensitive. Whatever your opinion on the British royal family*, though, it just goes to show that no one should be exempt from a employing little cultural sensitivity when overseas. We are all guests in someone else’s country after all.
Before I begin, one caveat: this cannot possibly be a fully comprehensive, all country guide. Each country has its own quirks that can fill a blog post by itself. Having recently returned from Mongolia, the amount of etiquette points I picked up there (e.g. never leave your bag on the floor) are numerous and almost exclusive to Mongolia. Ditto not laughing at appallingly bad karaoke in the Philippines, to give another example.
But hopefully, these are all pointers that can be applied wherever you go…
Read up before you go
There’s nothing worse in travel than not really knowing anything about a country you find yourself in, bewilderdly wandering its streets and wondering what the hell is going on. Even the great Ryzsard Kapuscinski fell foul of this, showing it can befall us all. Me? Never. Well, no, that’s a lie. When I was in Zanzibar, a predominantly Muslim archipelago, during Ramadan, I rather carelessly swigged from a bottle of water in public. Luckily for me, a passer by politely and diplomatically pointed out my faux pas. If I’d taken the time to check up on this, I wouldn’t have needed to rely on the kindness of strangers to spare my blushes.
A few words of the local lingo go a long way
With English essentially being the language of the world, it can be all too easy to assume that everyone you encounter, at least in tourist areas, will speak it. And yes, it would be unreasonable and unfeasible to expect everyone to be fluent in the language of every country they visit. But believe me, taking the time to learn a few stock phrases goes a very long way. I will never forget the look on the face of a Ugandan waiter – Uganda being a country where English is widely spoken and is the lingua franca – when I thanked him in Bugandan for the coffee he brought me, which was best described as surprised delight.
If a way to win someone’s heart is through their stomach, then the way to pay the ultimate compliment to a country is to enjoy its cuisine. Even if you actually don’t like it. Avoid damning with faint praise too. At one dinner in the Philippines I made the mistake of confessing my favourite meal on this particular trip had been last week in Hong Kong. The lady who had quizzed me wore a mask of subdued fury, and the gentleman next to her seemed wounded. Still, this was not as bad as the Chinese folks I climbed Kilimanjaro with, who put huge quantities of Chinese sauces in just about every meal our porters had prepared for us. Not the way to thank people who have prepared meal after meal for you in the bitter cold and at high altitudes…
Err on the side of modesty. I’m not saying you have to dress like a Victorian and show no flesh whatsoever. Indeed, in just about every Western country you can probably leave as little to the imagination as you like (but I’m stopping short of advocating outright nudism)! But in those places where you know you might fall foul, the general rule of thumb: covering shoulders and knees will be sufficient in all but the most, ahem, hugely orthodox of places.
Stay quiet. If a local you’re conversing with goes off on one, smile and nod. Heck, politics is probably a topic best avoided with people you don’t know all together. In my recent volunteering stint in Mongolia, one (male, Italian) volunteer thought the best way to introduce himself to another (female, Australian) volunteer was to proclaim that Hilary Clinton is “a b*tch”. Another extreme example, but you get my point.
Do you have any other general tips on how to avoid offending the locals?
* For the record, not all of us Brits like the royal family. To assume we all do would be culturally insensitive, naturally!