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When in Rome… or How Not To Embarrass Yourself In Foreign Countries

It might be the hottest day of the year, but if you expect to get into St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome just wearing a tank top and the skimpiest shorts you could find in your suitcase, you are out of luck. You don’t need to put on your Sunday’s best, but Christendom’s most important church requires rather a more respectful attire.

Believe it or not, but when you travel you don’t just travel as an individual. You’re not just Pete or Julie or Benjamin or Yuen. You always also travel as a representative of your country. One of the first questions you will be asked wherever you go, and not just by the people of the country you are visiting, but by fellow travelers, is this: where are you from?

And the reaction to your answer will tell you how much your fellow countrymen and –women have managed to embarrass not only themselves but everyone else from their country. It rests upon your shoulders to leave a better impression than those before you.

​It comes down to three things: preparation, respect and common sense.

If you go to a country that doesn't necessarily fall under the umbrella of "Western Country", or a country that is generally more religious than you might be used to, read up on common customs. Almost every guide book will have something to say about it. You may not agree with local customs, and, especially as a woman, may find them antiquated, but respect and common courtesy dictate that you try your best to adhere to them. If you find that you cannot do so, you may wish to go somewhere else instead.

The respect you gain by respecting the customs of the country you visit will go a long way. People will welcome you in a friendlier manner and will be more likely to open up to you. If you make an effort, so will they.

Remember that you are no longer at home and whatever you may find "normal" is probably not normal in the country you visit. Travelling is about getting to know strange and beautiful places, foreign cultures and new people. It’s also an opportunity to learn about yourself.

You don’t need to assimilate to the culture you encounter, but a few basic rules should be considered. They mostly concern the way you dress, which is pertinent for men and women, how you greet people, and how you move around in your environment.

If a sign in a church or cathedral shows a camera in a circle and a line across, it means the same everywhere around the world: no photos. You may wish to photograph the stunning interior of a cathedral so you can show images around when you get home, but that does not supersede the fact that it is not actually allowed.

In many Asian countries women should cover their shoulders and wear knee length shorts or skirts as long as they are out and about. If you are staying inside a resort you can probably wear as little as is acceptable according to the rules set out by the resort.

By researching and adhering to those customs, you are in no way restricting yourself, but showing respect to the country you visit and its people. You avoid embarrassing yourself, however involuntarily, and, by extension, your country.

Rules or customs may not always be clear or written out somewhere. Perhaps you forgot your guide book at home and it’s still sitting on the nightstand, where you last read through it. And how are you to know if nobody told you, right?

Here common sense comes into play. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. Behave as the guest you are and ask politely, instead of barging in as if you own the place. It’s as simple as that.

No matter which country you are from, people will have something to say about it, locals as well as fellow travelers. Every country and its travelers have a certain reputation. You don’t want to make it worse.

As at home so abroad alcohol is the most common reason for embarrassment.

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Nobody says you can’t have fun. Nobody says you can’t have a drink. But when travelling, a little moderation makes for better memories. You want to remember that fantastic night out when you met all those great people, don’t you? You prefer the images of you that appear on Facebook be recognizable and at least half decent, right?

Remember, in our digital age your embarrassment does not remain local. It will be all over the Internet in no time at all, because you never know who posts what online and your permission is not always required.

I’m not here to lecture you. You want to go out into the world and have the time of your life. Fair enough. As I said, when in Rome... Do you think they don’t know how to have fun in Rome?

Go out with some locals. They will look after you and show you how they have a good time. Don’t go with strangers. Make sure you have spent some time with the people you go out with at night during day time. And go in a group. There’s safety in numbers.

You can have the time of your life without embarrassing yourself, without feeling restricted by local customs and without overindulging in alcohol. You might even be surprised what you can learn along the way.

You want to look back on the trip of a lifetime and rest assured that you have left a good impression on the people you met, so that they may take up your invitation to come and visit and see your country and learn your customs.

And if nothing else, consider it a challenge. Try and be that tourist that doesn't make the locals roll their eyes behind your back, but instead raise their eyebrows in surprise.

About the author

Anja

I left home eight and a half years ago to travel around the world for what I thought would be three years. I somehow ended up living a year in Melbourne, Australia, almost three years in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a year in Victoria, BC, Canada. In between I traveled slowly, but extensively. Just when I thought I’d go home and settle down for a bit, I ended up living in London working for one of the biggest online travel agencies there is. Needless to say travel holds my heart and when I finish my current trip around the world, I will have been to roughly thirty countries (“only” ten on this trip, though, seven of them for the first time). My first passion is, and always has been, writing. When I get back to Europe, I will continue to work on my freelance career, keep writing my own blogs and publish a novel one of these days, all whilst living on a houseboat, because settling down is not for me.