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World’s Worst Cultural Mistakes

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It seemed simple: beat the bitter March temperatures—and my jet lag—by visiting the Finnish sauna at the luxurious Hotel Kamp in Helsinki. Just when I felt myself begin to relax, two naked men opened the glass door and stood staring at me, seemingly dumbstruck. Sure, my bathing suit was soaked in sweat and my legs streaked in magazine ink, but since it was my first visit to Finland, I didn’t understand the open jaws. Later, my Finnish friend erupted in peals of laughter: “No one wears a bathing suit in the sauna! And you don’t read there—it’s a place for contemplation. Those men had never seen that before!”

Cultural practices, cultural differences, local manners, and mores: traveling the globe can be a behavioral minefield, even when you have the best intentions. Everything from greeting to eating can be an opportunity to do the wrong thing, and not only embarrass yourself, but offend your host countrymen.

As more travelers venture further into less-explored destinations, there’s a greater likelihood of not just putting your foot in your mouth, but putting “your wrong hand in the couscous,” says Mark McCrum, author of Going Dutch in Beijing: How to Behave Properly When Away from Home. “I found myself in that situation in Azerbaijan, where I just got it a bit wrong. I put my left hand in the couscous and someone came up to me and said, ‘That’s for wiping.’ Now I know that anywhere east of Istanbul, the right hand is for eating and the other is for….”

It’s not just foreign cultures that prove problematic, but ones in which we tend to feel very familiar. Despite a shared language, Brits and Americans frequently slip into misunderstandings; U.S. mainlanders unknowingly offend Hawaiians when vacationing in their islands; and the forthright manner of a New Yorker might be considered downright rude in the genteel South.

There’s a reason major corporations employ cultural trainers before dispatching an employee to Moscow or Shanghai—an innocent blunder can instantly result in a lost deal or, worse, a broken relationship. But few leisure travelers have the time or resources to tackle the vast field of intercultural studies before heading to the airport. While McCrum suggests reading up on a country and its practices before journeying, you can start with the basic information on the U.S. State Department’s consular information sheets. Once on the ground, of course, you should remain highly sensitive to native behavior, he says.

“Never be completely surprised by anything; try to take it in stride,” says McCrum. “And don’t be offended if something seems offensive—like queue jumping. We kid ourselves that this is a global village, but we are all very different.”

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