Knowing and experiencing the customs and traditions of a new culture is not only essential for immersion, but it is also just really fun. I love learning about interesting traditions such as drinking your chocolate milk out of a bowl in France or the log that “poops” Christmas presents in Catatalonia. Customs and traditions are also just important to know while traveling if you want to fit in more with the locals.
Know How to Greet People
How you greet someone is the first impression you will make, so it’s a good idea to do research before you travel. For example, while living in Spain, I always greeted someone with two kisses (one on each cheek). If I had done the same when I was in Finland, they probably would have freaked out and it would have been an uncomfortable situation for all!
Research the Food Ettiquette
One of the main reasons why people travel is to try new foods around the world. However, while touring around foreign countries some of the most “uh, how should I act?” moments will probably happen either at the restaurant or while eating dinner at someone’s house. If you do not study up on the food etiquette beforehand, you may end up spending your meals wondering if your manners are correct or just acting inappropriately and not realizing it. Of course, it is not the end of the world if your dining etiquette is not nearly perfect, but the locals will respect you more if it is. For example, when I lived in Asia, the Koreans were happy to provide me with a fork while eating my food; however, if I ate with chopsticks, I always earned bonus points in the eyes of the Koreans.
Experience the Festivals
If you are from the U.S. like me, your hometown probably has a few festivals a year that are all relatively similar to each other, with the typical Ferris wheels, Funnel Cakes, and local bands. However, as you travel abroad, you realize that the festivals in other countries are not all the same. In fact, they are much cooler. Typically you will see the natives dress up in traditional outfits, such as the “Dirndls” at Oktoberfest, or they may be doing strange things like building human pyramids in Barcelona. Festivals are a really great opportunity to experience some of a region’s favorite traditions, eat fantastic food, and relive the history, right alongside the locals.
Understand the Relationship Between Men and Women
In the US, the relationships between men and women are quite “normal” or maybe, normal for us. However, in other cultures, particularly the farther east you go, they change quite dramatically. In some countries, men have an accepted higher social status than women, and in other countries men and women are not allowed to even see each other uncovered if they are not in the same family.
For instance, the only time a man can see a woman uncovered in Saudi Arabia is if it is his wife, sister, or mother. If you travel to a country similar to Saudi Arabia and, being your friendly self, you strike up conversations with random male strangers just to be nice, you could end up having a big problem.
Make sure you know how males and females interact with each other before your trip.
Dress Like the Locals
If you really want to fit in with the locals, then find out what type of clothes they wear. Tourists usually stick out when they travel with these goofy Hawaiian t-shirts and fanny packs. Everybody knows you are not a local, and in some cases, that could make you an easier target to get robbed.
By dressing the part it will be easier to win over the hearts of the locals. When I lived in Korea, on days when I wore my more comfortable and less fashionable clothes to work, I was an afterthought in the minds of my co-workers. But when I wore a nice dress or an outfit that was more fashionable, it was like I was a celebrity: heads turned, I was showered with compliments, and treated with more respect. As much as you like it, or don’t like it, how you dress matters.
Know When to Be Early, Late, or On Time
The concept of time varies from culture to culture. Fortunately, this is a topic that is discussed a bit more. Therefore, we already have an idea about most cultures already. We know that the Germans are on time and that the Latin Americans are not. When I lived in Mexico, we would invite people over to the house at 2:00 p.m. for a party. Yet, we would not even start getting ready until 4:00 p.m. because we knew the people would not come until 5:00 p.m. So, you can see how important time is. Depending on your destination, you may be missing the party or waiting for it to start if you do not have a clear understanding of punctuality, or the lack there of.
Participate in the Local Traditions
Some countries have really weird traditions. For example, in Catalonia Spain they beat on a log called “Tio” with a stick and it “poops” out toys for children for Christmas. Who would have thought that something like this existed? But, it is so much fun to watch… and participate! And, if you are celebrating your birthday in Mexico, then watch out. Your friends will probably push your face in the cake. It is the tradition! Find out about the cool traditions of the country you are traveling to and see if there is a way you can join in the fun.
Observe the Locals, Then Follow
You probably will not know everything about a culture’s customs and traditions before you arrive. However, you can learn a lot by just watching the locals and letting them do things first. I generally practice the “observe” rule when it comes to eating — Just follow the group and you will be fine.
If You Don't Know, Just Ask
Again, this is an obvious point. However, I believe that there are so many people who are too shy to ask what to do so it is a good reminder. I have learned tons, by simply asking the locals. I remember when I was staying with a friend in Morocco and we were going to the Hamam (bath house). I had no clue what to do, wear, or anything. So, I was asking my friend’s mom questions about it and she really loved the fact that I wanted to “do everything like the locals.” All you have to do is try. People love it.