Oops! Customs and cultural awareness

It wasn’t my fault!

The world is a very diverse place, with many different customs.

That is slowly changing with globalization, but we are a long way from everywhere being like everywhere else. It will probably happen one day, but long after we are gone.

The image of the boorish tourist taking no notice of his surroundings has become a cliché. When we travel we really should be aware of local customs and habits. It is only good manners, apart from anything else.

Most people in most places are very tolerant, and they won’t do or say anything even if you offend them. But why do so? A little bit of understanding goes a long way.

We do not have space here to list all the weird customs in the world that you may need to be aware of, but we will mention a few. Their sheer variety is astonishing.

The important rule is just to be aware that things might be different when you are somewhere else, and to take this into account. Common sense and a bit of sensibility will go a long way.


In Japan it very bad manners to cough or sneeze in public. That is why you see so many people wearing face masks. It’s not air pollution – they have a cold and don’t want to infect anybody. They really are polite to a fault. Also, you will notice that they do not talk on their cell phones on public transport. It is regarded as rude. If only the rest of the world would follow suit.

What not to do on the Metro

What not to do on the Metro


The French greet you as you enter and leave a cafe or bar, or even a shop. The service staff or the owner will call out ‘Bonjour Monsieur! Au revoir Madame!’ It is a wonderful custom. Make sure you reciprocate. Better still, get in first. But the main thing in France is to at least try to speak French.


The easiest way to offend someone in the USA in a service situation is not to tip. The country has a very low minimum wage and the entire hospitality industry is based on paying people a pittance and leaving them to rely on the kindness of strangers. The bare minimum tip is 10 percent, and 20 percent is normal.

Also, Americans have this concept of ‘personal space’. Don’t touch them.


Don’t mention the war, as John Cleese famously said in Fawlty Towers. Well, you can mention it, but be very careful about any reference to Nazism. The swastika is still banned in Germany, and I once got into severe trouble for quietly singing the Nazi anthem the Horst Wessel Lied on a Nazi walking tour of Munich. “Just trying to add some atmosphere,” I said.

Big mistake. In the bad old days of East Germany a tourist was jailed for a week for giving the Nazi salute when pulled up by the traffic police.


Australians are very friendly and will often offer to buy you a drink as soon as they meet you. If you accept, you had better offer to buy them one back, because it is your ‘shout’. Failing to return a shout is a mortal sin in Australia. It is also quite acceptable, even normal, to sit in the front seat of a taxi in Australia (if you are a male and alone). It’s an egalitarianism thing.

Your shout, mate!

Your shout, mate!

India and the Muslim world

Indians eat only with the right hand. They use their left hand for wiping their bums. Do not use your left hand at the table. When I am in India I simply sit on it while eating.

The same is true throughout the Muslim world, though it’s not a hygiene thing – the Koran says the devil eats with his left hand. And no excuses if you are a southpaw.


The Chinese are very rude by Western standards. It’s just a different culture – they are much more direct. But they also have the very important concept of ‘saving face’. Never put a Chinese in a position where they are embarrassed or feel slighted – always ensure they have a way out. One good thing about Chinese customs is that they don’t mind if you burp while you are eating. Farting and spitting are also acceptable, though peeing in the gutter has gone out of fashion.


The British wait in line to be served: at the bus stop, in a shop, at the pub. They call this queueing, and it is a national pastime. Do not break into a queue. Get in line and wait your turn. And don’t complain if the beer is warm and flat – it’s meant to be that way. If you want a cold beer, order a lager.


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