Photo: Vera Petrunina/Shutterstock

5 Ways To Avoid Embarassing Cultural Mishaps

by Laura Schweiger Sep 14, 2007

Until lately I liked to think that, as a seasoned traveler, my days of cultural misunderstandings were a thing of the past.

After all, I’m clever enough to call it the “loo” when asking a London waiter for the washroom, brave enough to use my elbows like every other shopper in a crowded German department store and patient enough to accept that everything moves a little slower during a Spanish afternoon.

It was with this cultural savvy in tow that I entered a café in Brussels’ majestic Grand Place last month. As I nibbled on a crepe which I’d ordered in intelligible albeit broken French, I congratulated myself on blending into this European capital.

And so as I made my way to the café’s bathroom, I had no reason to suspect a disastrous cultural misstep was only moments away.

In a hurry to continue the day’s sightseeing, I overlooked a small table by the door with a glass dish on it as I entered the ladies room. On my way out however my eyes instantly registered the table – now armed by a large, elderly woman.

I read the “Toilette 50 cents” sign resting next to her meaty hands and a peek in my wallet confirmed my fear that it contained only a 20 Euro bill and a 10 cent coin.

What transpired next was an embarrassing confrontation which culminated with her pelting me in the back of the head with my 10 cents as I made a break for it.

I dropped my inferior payment in her dish and walked briskly away, hoping she wouldn’t notice my transgression until I was happily photographing the Manneken Pis down the road.

Her booming voice halted me in my tracks, and what transpired next was an embarrassing confrontation which culminated with her pelting me in the back of the head with my 10 cents as I made a break for it.

Bottom line: I committed a cultural boo-boo that grew out of control in a matter of seconds. Here are some tips to help you from making a similar mistake…

1. Read your travel guide

Be honest. How many of you have ever rushed out to buy a travel guide with a sombrero on the cover the minute after booking your trip to Mexico?

If you answered yes, then here’s a gold star – clearly you appreciate the importance of informing yourself when traveling. But how many of you actually read from the book before you found yourself standing in front of Mayan ruins?

Simple as it sounds, flipping through a guide before embarking on your travels can go a long way in helping you understand the culture you’re about to plunge headfirst into – and consequently in avoiding embarrassing or even dangerous cultural misunderstandings.

2. When in Rome, do as the Romans – not your fellow fanny packers!

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re unsure of the custom, whether it’s how to pay your restaurant bill, queue for tickets at a museum or rent beach chairs, your best bet is to scan the crowd for a local and copy him/her.

Do not look to the sneaker wearing, fanny pack slinging group of tourists standing next to you for culture-clarification salvation. Just because ten Americans strut by the toilet lady without dropping coins in her change dish doesn’t mean you have to.

Any local (and now myself as well) knows the washroom woman is a force to behold – and not to be trifled with under any circumstance.

3. Remember that you are a guest

You know when you’re riding in a friends car and their music selection makes you want to put your left eye out, but you realize you have no right to change the music?

Keep this example in mind while traveling abroad. You’re a guest when visiting a foreign country and you’d be wise to act like one.

Vocalizing your opinion to the natives that their food is gross, their city dirty and their customs just flat-out bizarre will cast you as a culturally-ignorant diva, and you may suddenly find the welcome mat pulled out from under your feet.

4. Leave preconceived notions at home

You may have heard that Italians are bona fide maniacs when it comes to driving or that you’d be crazy to enter the Cartier store on the Champs-Elysees wearing anything less than a $3000 Louis Vuitton pantsuit.

Why not go into your travel experience as a blank slate and let the city make its own, unique impression upon you?

Maybe your friend was spot on, but chances are, if you have a negative outcome in mind when visiting a foreign destination, it’s likely to become a reality.

This is because the locals will sense your skepticism and react in a way that says “if you don’t like it, leave.”

5. Don’t forget to laugh

Even if you follow the above tips, it’s still possible that a country’s culture may catch you off guard. Say, for instance, you unknowingly end up ordering a main course of animal genitalia due to a “foreign language malfunction.”

There are two ways to react in this situation:

One: you could cause a scene and demand the waiter remove the bull’s unmentionables from your plate immediately.

Two: you could laugh it off and chalk it up to another memorable experience in a foreign country – and, hell, maybe you could even try a tiny bite.

If you choose scenario number one, you’re likely to offend the natives and find yourself in a sticky situation.

If you choose number two, you might go down in history as the restaurant’s first tourist to taste pig’s privates, plus you’ll have a great story to tell at your next dinner party.

Choose scenario number two.

Laura Schweiger’s life has taken a nomadic turn since graduating from university. When she’s not on the road, she’s busy concocting rather transparent excuses to do so again.

What other tips do you have for avoiding cultural mishaps?

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