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Travel Taboos: Etiquette Abroad

Words by Elaine Hilbelink

Traveling to exotic places or foreign soil can be part of the charm of your destination wedding. Different customs and standards for what is appropriate in dress and behavior vary wherever we go. Clothing, gestures, greetings and general conduct can tag you as a tourist, and we want to be respectful and respected as we journey around the World.

Q. What is the best way for me to find out the etiquette and customs of the country where we are having our wedding? How do I communicate that information to our friends and relatives who will be attending?

A. As a host, it is important for you to research what is appropriate in the country you have selected. Travel guidebooks, online searches and speaking to contacts at your venue are all effective ways to inform yourself about appropriate behavior and customs. Your personal wedding website is a great way to share what you learn with your guests so they might plan appropriate dress for the trip and be sensitive to the cultural customs in your host country. You might also include some travel tips and local customs in a hospitality bag to greet your guests in their room, or if budget permits, you may consider sending them a guidebook after you receive their RSVP.

Q. In the past, I've had taxi drivers in different places who drive recklessly or talk on their cell phones while I'm in the car. How do I handle this situation not only in my own country, but other countries?

A. If your driver is talking on the phone, gently request they end their call. Same goes for speeding or driving recklessly. Just ask them to drive cautiously. Explain that you’re just looking out for your safety. If they refuse, my suggestion would be to have them pull over in a safe, populated place where you can easily find another taxi.

In other countries, make sure you bring a language book so you can politely ask them to slow down or be careful. It’s respectful for you to know their language. Simply saying, “Slow down please,” is adequate.

If you ever feel unsafe, it is better to risk being confrontational than to put your life in danger.  Always pay for your ride, but whether you tip would be optional.

Also, as a side note – make sure you know your fare before you travel. In Thailand it is best to negotiate before you ride as prices tend to vary. In the U.S. it’s more straight forward and prices are usually posted. In other countries, it might not be so cut and dry.

Q. What do I do about loud partying guests in my hotel when it is late at night?

A. If it is past a reasonable hour, it is best to call the front desk and make a noise complaint. Never go to the room and try to handle the situation yourself or bang on the walls as that will only aggravate the situation. If the disturbance does not end after 20 or 30 minutes, call again and make a second complaint. Be prepared, however, that you may have to move to another room if the noise continues.

Q. I've always wondered the best way to handle a kid kicking my seat on a flight. What's your suggestion?

A. If you feel comfortable, you might politely speak to the parent of the child and ask them to talk to their child about kicking the seat. If you are hesitant to do that, you could quietly talk to the flight attendant and have them resolve the situation for you. If it continues, you may ask the flight attendant to move your seat if there is another available.

Q. I have heard that customs as simple as shaking hands, touching someone on the head and even tipping can offend people in parts of the World. Is this true?

A. Yes, it is true. In parts of the World, people bow to each other or greet each other with hands in prayer position (Namaste) rather than shaking hands. Men greeting each other with a kiss on the cheek might also be customary. Showing the soles of your feet can offend in certain countries in the Middle East and Asia. Public displays of affection might wind up putting you in jail depending on where you are! Tipping customs also vary depending upon your destination. Some Scandanavian countries don’t tip unless it’s over-the-top service, and even in that case, simply leaving the change is acceptable – definitely not 18-20 percent like in the U.S..

At weddings in Sweden and Norway, it’s considered impolite for men to remove their jackets before the groom or to talk while a speech is going on.

Make sure you know basic etiquette about dress. In many countries they won’t allow you into places of worship if you don’t have your shoulders or even ankles covered.

By simply buying an up-to-date guide book, speaking to someone who has recently traveled there, or looking it up on the destination’s tourism website, you’ll find out what the customs are for that area.

For all of these reasons, knowing the customs and local etiquette of your chosen destination will enable you and your guests to be prepared to be sensitive to the cultural mores and enjoy your event.

This article first appeared in Destination I Do's Fall2013/Winter 2014 issue. You can order a copy here.

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