Watch Your Step! 10 Faux Pas that Can Trip You Up!

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”

– Robert Louis Stevenson

Be Careful Where You Step, It Might Be in a Faux Pas!

“Where’s the check?” “What’s taking them so long?” “What’s wrong with these people?” “These (fill in a nationality) are so (fill in an adjective)! “ Do you ever wonder why some people travel at all? I mean, they go to a foreign country and are promptly surprised, if not befuddled, annoyed, even downright demanding as to why they don’t do things “like they do back home”?!

It doesn’t dawn on them they are the guests, they are the tourists, and that perhaps they should take  the local culture and customs into consideration. They often end up just embarrassing themselves and their fellow travelers by committing one faux pas after another. It’s the classic bull in a china shop. Fish out of water. The proverbial (oh, I hate to say it) “ugly American”…ouch!

What is a Faux Pas? How Can You Avoid Them?

Faux pas is French and it literally means “false step”. It’s defined as an awkward misstep in etiquette, manners or conduct. It’s a social blunder, a gaffe, “an embarrassing or tactless act or remark in a social situation.” You get the picture, it’s when you or someone else totally screws up!  If you’ve ever been in or witnessed an uncomfortable cultural exchange and/or full on faux pas, you know whereof I speak.

For me, a faux pas can reveal a lack of sensitivity or respect for another culture and even just plain social ignorance or arrogance. Of course, we are all probably guilty of making an innocent faux pas now and then. It slips out and happens before we have time to even think about it. And, surely, many are politely overlooked. No matter how conscientious we are, no one expects us to be knowledgeable about every single appropriate behavior/rule of etiquette and custom when we travel. However, not making any effort isn’t really acceptable either, is it?

After all, aren’t we all ambassadors of sorts when we travel?  Your entire travel experience, and that of everyone involved, can be enhanced and far more gratifying. It’s time well invested and I guarantee that doing a little homework and being an informed and respectful traveler will be noticed, appreciated, reciprocated and, perhaps, even acknowledged.

A personal example is when traveling in other countries (e.g. France, Italy, etc.). I read that when you enter the shops, it’s customary to greet and be greeted by the shopkeeper. A simple greeting such as “bonjour” or “buongiorno” and when departing, a simple, “merci” or “grazie” is appreciated. I found this simple gesture so easy and it made such a difference in my shopping experience.

Meeting new people and enjoying their culture and customs is why we travel, isn't it?

Meeting new people and enjoying their culture and customs is why we travel, isn’t it?

10 Faux Pas that Could Trip You Up

To simplify things and not overwhelm you, I’ve narrowed  the topic of  faux pas down to 10 general categories of etiquette that could trip you up.  

You would be well advised to do a little research before you travel to a foreign destination. Since every culture and country has its own specific accepted customs and etiquette, I’m not going to tackle that here. I have, however, provided several excellent resources at the end of this page.

#1 Clothing/attire: Obviously, what you’re wearing is …well, obvious! Despite the fact that more and more of the world is becoming “westernized”, it’s still very important to be aware of what is considered appropriate in public, in places of worship, when visiting homes of locals, etc. Unless you’re going to a beach in the south of France, when in doubt, go modest.

From hats (please remove those baseball caps in churches!), bare shoulders (not in a place of worship, please) and short skirts or shorts (uh, think of the view someone is getting when you climb stairs), to wearing shoes indoors and even colors can send the wrong message. Remember the saying about first impressions?

#2 On Time: Punctuality, or lack of it, definitely varies from country to country. What is considered acceptable vs. what is considered rude should definitely be strictly observed.  Remember not to be upset or impatient if your standards or expectations aren’t met. Just realize it’s better to be the one waiting than keeping someone else waiting.

#3 Greetings: What is expected during introductions? Are there gender considerations? Who takes the lead? How formal or informal? Use first names or not? Shake hands? How to shake and with whom?  Hugs or “kisses”? (When in doubt, follow the lead of your host.)

#4 Gestures: Body language and gestures includes mannerisms, use of hands and facial expressions as well as eye contact, tone of voice, and how close we stand in conversation. Pointing, staring, and certain well-known gestures are often taboo. While some nationalities are notorious for being dramatic, others are very reserved. Observe and learn.

#5 Communicating: Avoid inappropriate language or remarks and steer clear of politics (especially theirs), religion, and other touchy subjects. Learn a few local phrases in the local language (i.e., hello, please, thank you, and excuse me are easy enough). Again, observe and learn.

Eat local, meet local - how sweet it is!

Eat local, meet local, mind your manners. Enjoy!

#6 Dining: Considerations include meal times, ordering, seating arrangements, length of meals, style of service, tipping. If with guests, who pays? In some countries it’s considered impolite to bring the check until it’s asked for, while in others, you get it with the main course! You’ll enjoy your meal when you are aware of local protocol.

#7 Table Manners: Ladies first, ordering, elbows on or off, what silverware to use, eating with your hands (and which hand), making a toast…when in doubt, yep, you guessed it…observe and learn.

#8 Gifts:  Given as tokens of appreciation and/or as hostess/hospitality gifts, customs around what to give, how and when to present it, and when it is opened (or not) will vary.

If you say it with flowers, be careful of the color and variety. An example: in Italy yellow mums are funereal. Another example is that clock in Chinese is similar to the word death and knives or letter openers can symbolize the severing of a relationship in several cultures, so not good gift choices. In Italy or France, a bottle of fine wine is appreciated, while in a Muslim country, it’s a faux pas.

#9 Colors and Quantities: Colors and quantities have definite meaning and symbolism in different countries/cultures. In one white can mean purity, in another it can mean mourning. In one red can mean good luck, in another death. In one country green is good luck, in others it is forbidden. Numbers have meaning as well. We often think of 13 as being unlucky but it can vary in different cultures and specific or even or odd numbers are symbolic.

So, anything from the color of the gift or wrapping paper to the number of items can inadvertently send the wrong message while giving an appropriate gift can send the right one!

Look but don’t touch!

#10 In Public: This encompasses everything from greeting shopkeepers to bargaining in markets or shops to public displays of affection and standing in line (sometimes it’s orderly, sometimes it’s chaotic!).

It also includes whether it’s acceptable or not to touch the goods in small shops and especially in small or farmer’s markets. In the U.S. we’re used to touching and picking out our own, while this is not acceptable in many other countries. There may even be signs requesting that you not touch.

I would also add asking permission to take photos of locals and/or their shop, restaurant, etc. Everyone doesn’t want to be on your Facebook page. As a courtesy, I always ask permission first and, of course, compliment and thank them!

When in Doubt…

When in doubt, wait, observe locals, take your cues from them and imitate (if it’s polite!) what they do. When in doubt, ask what is customary, what is acceptable, what is appropriate.

The more we understand about the people we are visiting and their culture, lifestyle, and values, the richer our experience will be. It’s how we learn about each other. And ultimately we learn that, although we may do things in a different way, we can respect each other and find our common ground, too.

More Help!

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Have you ever committed a faux pas? What was it?


References and Resources:

eDiplomat – Excellent reference; adapted from material compiled by Window on the World, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. Originally based on material contained in the “Put Your Best Foot Forward” series of books by Mary Murray Bosrock.

Kwintessential – Great custom and protocol guidelines, even has useful phrases in 25 languages

Vayama – Cultures and customs

Kiss Bow or Shake Hands – Geared toward the international business traveler but is an excellent and extremely thorough guide.

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