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What customs do you need to know about when overseas?

What customs do you need to know about when overseas?

Customs - "A traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time" - Oxford Dictionary


Although it can be hard to quantify, every country has its own customs and practices that dictate how people live their lives. Yes, the customs of many Western nations are similar to our own, but at the same time, there are differences that can be confusing and easy to break.

If you're heading overseas soon, you might be faced with new and strange customs that you'll need to know how to deal with. With this in mind, here is the FBI Travel guide to customs around the world.

Chopsticks are never placed upright in a rice bowl (China)

As you know, there are certain things that you'd never do with a knife and fork if you were out for dinner. This said, it's the same for chopsticks in China and many other Asian countries.

If you were to eat in a restaurant in China, it's advised that you never leave chopsticks upright in your bowl as it's similar to an offering made to the dead. Instead there should be gaps on the side of your bowl where you can rest the chopsticks when not eating. 

Additionally, if you're making a gesture with your hands or pointing, you should never do so while holding chopsticks. This is a sign of disrespect in Chinese culture.

Dinner served after 9 p.m. (Spain)

In Australia, most people will eat their evening meal around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., ready to relax for the rest of the night. However, in Spain, by the time that most people are set for bed Down Under, the Spanish are grabbing a bite to eat.

Dining is an important part of Spanish culture, but their entire schedule is different to the rest of the Western world. Lunch isn't usually taken until around 2 p.m. and restaurants may not open until 9 p.m. for the evening service. On the weekend, this could be extended to at least 10 p.m. - make sure you have had a snack in the late afternoon.

Spain is also famous for its siesta time, when shopkeepers go home to eat their lunch and then have a siesta (sleep) for the rest of the afternoon. While this shouldn't impact activities in the main tourist hubs, you might find a few closed signs in smaller towns or quieter suburbs!

Tipping service workers 15 to 20 per cent (United States)

One of the customs that Australians have most trouble wrapping their heads around is tipping. As hospitality workers earn at least the minimum wage here, there is far less obligation to tip. Of course, this isn't the case in the United States with some employees earning as little as $2.00 an hour plus tips.

If you're heading to the US, it's important to remember that there are no technical rules around tipping - it's just expected in certain situations. For example, the amount you're expected to tip may vary from 15 to 20 per cent of a bill as thanks for refilling drinks and providing other services at a sit-down restaurant. The value of your tip should reflect your satisfaction with the service you've received - less than 15 per cent generally implies that you were not totally happy.

Put simply, tipping acknowledges good service. As such, unless it's 'mandatory gratuities' as stated on the menu or elsewhere, it's optional to tip. A general suggestion - where you've had good service, be nice and give a tip to reward hard work!

Addressing someone with respect (Japan)

Japan is a nation of respect and humility, with hierarchy a vital part of the culture. As a visitor, you're expected to follow this trend through the custom of bowing. 

If you're fretting over the duration and inclination of the bow, it depends on the situation and the perceived authority of the other person. For example, if you ask someone on the street for directions to the nearest restaurant, a quick 30-degree bow or a slight head bow might suffice. However, when you're checking into a hotel or talking to someone with greatest respect, a slow, extended, 70-degree bow will be better. Here is a general list of when to bow:

  • Saying hello or goodbye
  • Thanking someone
  • Saying sorry to someone
  • Congratulating someone
  • Asking someone for a favour or their goodwill
  • Worshipping someone or something

At the end of the day, bowing is all about position and circumstance. Take your time to think about the context and what would be most appropriate. As someone who is not familiar with Japanese culture, most locals will accept your gesture of any level and acknowledge your respect. 

The waiter isn't ignoring you (Italy)

There is no doubt that when in Italy, food is on your agenda. Carbonara, lasagne, cannelloni - good food is never too far away. This is why when you sit down at a restaurant, waiters give you as much time as you like. 

Yes, there is no rush when eating your classic margarita pizza! In Italy, the custom is that the table you're sitting at is yours until you decide to leave. As such, the waiter isn't going to automatically give you the bill so they can seat another party. While it might seem like they're ignoring you when you've clearly finished your meal, the waiters are just allowing you to relax, socialise and let your food settle.

When you're ready to pick up the tab, try out the phrase "Il conto, per favore" and your bill will arrive. This is certainly a custom that you'll get used to and miss when you're back home!

Learning customs with FBI Travel

One of the best elements of travel is exploring the different customs and lifestyles that exist around the world. We travel because life is too short to stay in one place doing the same thing!

When you book your next adventure with FBI Travel, you'll be able to discuss any questions about customs with your dedicated Travel Adviser who can provide insight into your destination. For more information about seeing a new side of the world, get in touch with our friendly team on 1800 359 324!

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