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Cultural etiquette. It’s one of the most important concerns for someone who is traveling abroad or moving to a different country. Whether it’s trying to learn the language or wearing appropriate attire, it’s important to do research on significant cultural differences between where you live and the host country you are visiting. After all, what comes naturally in one culture may be viewed as offensive in another.
Here are some of the key considerations when trying to make a smooth transition into another international culture.
One of the first things people notice is how individuals present themselves and greet others. Using phrases like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you,’ convey that a visitor is making an effort and trying to be respectful.
— Derek Capo, CEO of Next Step China
“Whenever you’re a foreigner in a new country and you’re willing to make an attempt to speak the language and use it correctly, people will be more appreciative and helpful in everything you do,” says Derek Capo, CEO of Next Step China, a relocation service company that has offices in Beijing and Shanghai, and focuses on studying, teaching and interning in China. “Little things can go a long way.”
Using the right gestures is another way to show appreciation of the culture. “You certainly don’t want to have a social gaff or faux pas while you’re there,” says Suzanne Garber, a Philadelphia-based chief networking officer at International SOS, which helps organizations manage health and security risks for individuals who travel and live abroad. While it may be customary in one culture to shake hands or kiss on the cheek, another culture may see this as strange.
For example, Garber says bowing in Japan is a sign of respect. However, “There are certain formats and types of bows that determine how far you bow, what to do with your hands while bowing and facial expressions or contact,” she says.
In Japan, any attempt to hug or kiss would be seen as strange and inappropriate. Yet, a kiss on the cheek is customary in almost all parts of Latin America and many parts of Europe. “In some countries, like Belgium, three kisses from right to left to right cheek, are normal,” Garber says. “Whereas in other locations like Mexico one kiss to the right cheek is standard. Also note, however, that even within a country, the kissing protocol differs. Sao Paulo, Brazil, offers up one kiss to the right cheek whereas Rio de Janeiro offers up two kisses: right then left cheek.”
For individuals who want to learn about cultural etiquette abroad, Garber recommends the book Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway, as well as websites like eDiplomat and Culturology — especially for individuals doing business abroad.
In certain cultures, there are strict rules regarding what clothing is appropriate and respectful. Countries including Saudi Arabia, Bhutan, North Korea and Sudan have fairly strict legal guidelines around what is acceptable or unacceptable for men and women to wear. For example, in Saudi Arabia women typically follow a strict dress code in public, which includes an abaya (a cloak) and niqab (a headscarf and veil). Women in Bhutan must wear kiras (an ankle-length dress) and the men are required to wear ghos (a knee-length wrap around garment). In North Korea, women are required to wear skirts in public — and may face hard labor if arrested for wearing pants. And Sudanese women who are caught wearing trousers in public can face fines and flogging.
Before an individual visits any of these countries, it’s important to conduct research on appropriate attire. For example, someone in the U.K. may want to visit the website for the British Embassy in Riyadh for guidance before visiting Saudi Arabia.
Even in countries where attire isn’t legislated, Capo recommends a more conservative look until becoming immersed in the culture. For example, if someone is going into a business setting, it’s best to wear a suit rather than business casual attire.
“Once you see what it’s like, you can adapt to it more easily,” he says.
Knowing the rules of the area will minimize surprises when arriving in a new country. For example, the respect for currency in Thailand differs dramatically than in America. Ripping it, taping it together or writing on it is an offense punishable by jail or a fine, because it’s considered an offense against the king. Individuals can learn about some of these issues beforehand by visiting websites such as eDiplomat and the U.S. Department of State.
Individuals who don’t have time to research a culture online should consider a relocation service company to help with the process. Just make sure to ask what’s included in their fee, Capo says.
“We do a two-part orientation. First, it’s the orientation of the neighborhood, which details things like closest supermarket, hospital, bank and so forth,” Capo says. “The second part is the history of the area and the culture.”
While there are numerous considerations before traveling or moving to a different country, taking the time to research cultural differences can minimize surprises and ease the transition.
“What Not to Wear,” April 2011, Foreign Policy magazine
“Saudi’s Small Steps,” Oct. 19, 2009, Time magazine
“Bhutan profile,” July 11, 2012, BBC News Asia
“N. Korea cracks down on women’s pants,” July 24, 2009, AsiaOneNews
“Amnesty International calls on Sudan to repeal law penalizing women for wearing trousers,” Sept. 4, 2009, Amnesty International News
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