Real Talk

How to avoid culture shock: 11 cultural differences around the world

Do you remember the first time you went overseas and you couldn’t understand the language, let alone why everyone was standing on the opposite side of the escalators? That’s just one sign of culture shock. Culture shock can actually even happen inside your own country! People have different customs and your heritage may result in a different behaviour or outlook to your friends.

To avoid culture shock equal culture shook, here are some of the most common things you can prepare for when travelling…

Breakfast in Asia looks like lunch or dinner

Don’t be surprised in Asia if you’re served savoury foods like soup, rice and vegetables or curries for breakfast. While those of us from Western countries will be missing our cereals and Acai bowls, if you’re ready for a breakfast bowl of congee you’ll be rewarded with a full tummy until lunch. The meals are super nutritious and avoiding a sugar hit in the morning is just one reason Asian people are praised as having some of the best diets in the world by health professionals.

food in asia

Queuing isn’t a thing in India

Standing in line, waiting for your turn patiently may make perfect sense to people from Western backgrounds, but you’re in for a rude shock if you love rules in India. Because India is based on a hierarchical culture, people do not generally queue, as it’s understood you deserve to be served based on your status, not how long you’ve been there. Women and rich people have every right to elbow through the crowd to the front and this can be very confusing in such a crowded environment. It may not seem the right way to act to many of us, but it’s good to be aware of it before travelling through India.


French people are going to greet you with a kiss

In Europe, and especially France, it’s normal to greet someone of the same sex (and opposite if you know each other well) outside a professional environment with a peck on each cheek. Even strangers! This can be mighty surprising if you don’t know it’s coming and you may end up in an awkward shuffle as they go in for it and you lean back. Simple affection like that in European countries isn’t considered a ‘come on’ or out of place. It’s up to you if you want to be touched, but being prepared for it might save you labelling someone a pervert!

Couple holding hands in paris

Meat is sold in the open-air

Plenty of travellers have come back from countries like Morocco or Colombia and vowed to be vegetarian after seeing meat being sold in the open-air in the markets. With no refrigeration and hot days, it’s common to see slabs of beef covered in flies… yep, it can be pretty confronting. So how does everyone not get sick all the time? Besides the fact their immune systems can handle it, the turnover of stock is quite high as people do their shopping everyday and don’t visit supermarkets to buy in bulk. Eating street food can be delicious, but always check how your meat was stored and cooked if you can.

You don’t flush your toilet paper in Mexico

A lot of people are shocked by the signs around toilets saying not to flush the TP and yes, they’re serious. The toilets are regular ones that flush so why can’t you say adios to your used paper down there? Thanks to Mexico’s beautiful coastal location, the water table is very high throughout most regions and the plumbing system just isn’t robust enough to handle anything other than bodily waste. If you flush your toilet paper you’ll clog the system and well, we don’t need to explain why that’s not awesome. There’s always a bin next to the loo so just pop your paper in there. Most toilets are cleaned regularly in hotels and ~hopefully~ public ones are too, but be prepared to hold your breath just in case.

Do NOT jaywalk in Poland

If you’ve ever been to Poland you’ll notice that despite a clear stretch of road people will wait patiently at the lights until the green man lights up and says they can walk. Many countries (like Mexico where it’s a free for all) will find this strange since what’s the problem walking if you’re not going to get run over or disrupt traffic? The reason Polish people don’t jaywalk is because it’s considered an action against the community if people follow you (which they will if they see you’ve gone) and fines for it are common and quite expensive! Policemen can be hiding nearby and pop you with a ticket, resulting in a country of law-abiding road crossers.


People will talk to you in Southern USA

The term Southern hospitality is not a lie! Striking up a conversation with strangers and throwing anyone you pass a smile is very common behaviour for people from the ‘Deep South’. Thanks to a strong community spirit, locals aren’t shy about chatting to other people because it keeps them connected. This can seem strange to city people who step into an elevator and keep their head down, but it’s actually a pleasant surprise to have someone ask how your day is going and want to hear about it while waiting in line for Starbucks. Who knows, maybe we can all learn something about being friendly from the peeps out of the South?

cooking in new orleans

Take your shoes off when you go indoors

In most Asian and Muslim countries plus Sweden, Finland and Germany (and the list goes on!) the etiquette upon entering someone’s home or a place of worship is to remove your shoes. In fact, the United Kingdom, Australia and America are pretty much the only countries that don’t take off their shoes before entering a dwelling! The reason for it is simple: to not track dirt and bacteria from outside into your home. Some of these countries eat sitting on the floor so they don’t want to eat amongst filth and it keeps their homes cleaner.

Pro tip: look for a bunch of shoes near the front door or in a foyer when you enter. That’s a good indication that you need to take yours off or risk the wrath of the homeowner. Not sure? Just ask!

Here’s the deal with squat toilets

For many Westerners, stepping into a cubicle, locking the door and facing a hole in the ground is a source of dread, so familiarising yourself with the squat toilet how-to is super valuable before you travel. You’ll come into contact with squat toilets throughout Asia, Turkey and parts of Africa.

First things first, if you don’t trust yourself, it’s easier to remove your pants entirely or take one leg out so they’re out of the way. Once you’ve done your business you may notice there’s no toilet paper. Yep, that shower nozzle is for washing after you’re done, as is the two-bucket of water system. The easiest method is to fill the smaller bucket from the large bucket and pour onto your bits, while washing with your left hand. This is why many cultures don’t use the left hand for eating or shaking hands; it’s considered unclean.

Nudity isn’t taboo in Spain and France

While there are many very conservative parts of the world, you may be surprised when holidaying in Spain or France at the amount of topless sunbathers you’ll see. While they’re not countries that are synonymous with sexual liberty (helloooo the Netherlands), swimming or sunbaking sans shirt is really no big deal there. There are several reasons for this and one is that they don’t fetishize nudity like other countries, and for Spain, their Catholic royal families tried to stamp out any scandalous behaviour, resulting in a celebration of freedom once the rule ended. Standard rules apply of course; no staring or being creepy.

girl on beach in nice

Using a tissue is considered disgusting in parts of Asia

You may see people blocking one nostril and ejecting their boogers out of the other (affectionately known as ‘The Bushman’ in Australia) on the streets in Asia and want to run away as it’s a huge social no-no to do something like that in Western society. Before you judge though, the reason they don’t use tissues or hankies is because culturally it’s disgusting to ‘hold onto your snot for later’ and it’s normal in those countries to not keep anything unhygienic around. We’re not saying you should adopt the practice, just try not to freak out if you see it.

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