Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Paris to get a glimpse of the beautiful cathedrals, taste delicious pastries and get a glimpse of Parisian romance. Believe it or not, there is a real mental disorder called Paris Syndrome that is experienced almost exclusively by Japanese tourists who are disappointed when the city of lights does not live up to their romantic expectations.This extreme form of culture shock actually causes them to go into a delusional state with anxiety, dizziness, and sweating. And the cure? There is only one – book a one-way ticket back home.
Culture is beautiful but without the help of travel, we really would be one-dimensional. The greatest challenge today is accepting that there are differences among us. Although most people would doubt they experience culture shock, it happens to all of us. When they visit a new destination they come across cultural rules that they find hard to understand. But on the flip side, many people who travel can agree that they return with an extra appreciation and understanding for another culture after being able to see and experience things for themselves.
It helps to remember that culture needs to be learned. And picking up a book or watching a Youtube music video isn’t enough. There are cultural norms and although these rules may be visible (or invisible) don’t get them mixed up with causal behaviors widely accepted. Here is a list of some of our memorable cultural rules and differences that we have come across on our travels:
Thailand – Not with the Feet
In Thailand, the head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body (NEVER touch a Thai person on their head), and the feet are considered to be the dirtiest. On top of that, their respect to the King is unsurpassed so this story will make you giggle. We were standing in front of an elevator waiting for it to come down. At the same time, we were counting the change in our pocket. As the doors began to open, one of the coins had slipped out and began rolling into the gap of the elevator. So what was our first instinct? Step on the coin! That was a big no-no because we used our feet to step on the King’s face. Oh man, the dirty looks that we got from everyone in the elevator were something else! In fact, you can read about a backpacker in Thailand who had her feet up in a bus go viral recently. Bottom line is, anything that involves using your feet, try avoiding it when in Thailand.
Vietnam – Why Are You Calling Her A Dog?
How do you signal someone to come over? Are your fingers pointing up or down? Well in Vietnam (and some other parts of Asia) it matters. When you call a person, you signal with your fingers pointing down, brushing it towards you. In North America and Europe, it is reversed with fingers pointing up. If you did that in Vietnam you would get a slap on the wrist as it means you are calling them over like a dog.
Africa and the Middle East – Yes, They Are Holding Hands
It is normal for people to hold hands but when two men do it, it may give off the wrong signal. In many parts of the Middle East and Africa, men hold hands as a sign of friendship and trust. In North America in Europe not so much. Typically translated as a sign of courtship, if two men held hands in the US; chances are it is for other reasons. So when someone tried grabbing Robert’s hand in Kuwait, it wasn’t a shocker at how surprised he was!
United Kingdom – Did You Want Two Or Did You Just Flip Him Off?
Who would have thought that there are so many ways of flipping someone off? But there is more. In the UK, be cautious of how you order two beers. If you show two fingers with your nails pointing away from you, you better start running.
Taiwan – The Louder The Better
Burping in most cultures is a common thing. If you are with your friends and someone lets out a burp and you all laugh. In Taiwan and China, it is a sign of politeness in public. When you belch out loudly you are actually complimenting the chef. However, we could never tell if someone IS actually complimenting the chef, or belching for the sake of it. This fits in the same box as slurping in Japan. If you slurp loudly when eating noodles, you are sending good vibes to the chef. However, in European countries, especially places like England, eating loudly is frowned upon.
Germany – Don’t Tell Them It’s Okay
What comes to mind when you want to give the universal symbol of “okay.” You give them a thumbs-up, right? In Germany that would probably get your ass kicked if shared with the wrong group of people. A thumbs up is the equivalent of giving them the finger. Take it a step further in Turkey by calling someone a homosexual.
Singapore – Chewing Gum? Good Luck
Chewing gum might be good for dental hygiene, but in Luxembourg, Switzerland, and France, public gum-chewing is considered vulgar. In Singapore, most gum has been illegal since 1992 when residents grew tired of scraping the sticky stuff off their sidewalks. In fact, if you are caught selling gum, you can be charged with a $100,000 fine or a prison sentence of up to two years. Funny enough, that’s not the oddest law that you can find in Singapore.
Middle East – Are You Hungry Or Telling Me To Wait
We experienced this one as well and it always makes us laugh when we share it with others. If you take your thumb to your fingers and show this symbol to someone from India, it means you want to eat. If you took the same symbol in Italy and flicked it to someone, you would essentially be flipping them off. In the Middle East, this symbol is a kind gesture for someone to wait or be patient with you.
Being raised by European parents, this sign had a similar meaning to me as the Italians do. So when we arrived in Qatar at 2:00 am for the first time in our lives, we were a little surprised that the security officer at the airport was flipping everyone off before telling them to cue up.
As we move closer and closer to a global culture where nationalities are blended with the help of our digital screens, these customs will slowly fade away. But while they are still here, you can still get a taste of these habits and behaviors that have changed around the world. So the next time you are visiting a country for the first time, it helps to familiarize yourself with the local customs to save yourself the surprise of not knowing what they mean! Safe travels and happy exploring.
Do you have any experiences with cultural differences? We would love to hear them!