I have lived in 23 countries; that’s lived as in, spent at least a month (usually three, and over a year in some) in the country where I invested serious time into speaking its language (or already spoke its language on arrival) and tried to investigate its culture and made local friends.
This list is; Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Belgium, Colombia, the US, Canada, Ireland, UK, Spain,France, the Netherlands, Egypt, Italy, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Turkey, India, the Philippines, Thailand, China, Taiwan. (I’ve also visited Poland, Uruguay, Singapore, Austria, Slovakia, Norway, and Mexico for a few days or weeks, but definitely wouldn’t consider myself to have lived in any of these and was more of a tourist, and I’ve had a flight transfer through a bunch other countries for a few hours, which I wouldn’t count at all).
I can point you to travellers who have been to many more countries than I have (most of whom have been travelling way less than I have, so it really shows the different speeds we travel at), but my style of travel and theirs is very different and I feel like I have gotten to know the modern cultures of each of these countries much more than the majority of passers-through ever do.= display_ad('x18', 'hidden-xs hidden-md mm_incontent', 'MM In Content'); ?>= display_ad('x20', 'visible-xs mm_mob_incontent', 'MM In Content (Mobile)'); ?>
The thing about living in a country and truly attempting to understand its culture and language, is that you have to pick up a lot of their customs to stand out less and make them feel more comfortable. Some of these I have done only in passing and stopped almost immediately after leaving the country, but quite a few (as you’ll see here) have stuck with me for life.
In today’s post, I want to share a few of the strangest habits that I have picked up!
1. Ask people if they want to have a shower way too often
This strange custom is one that I picked up from spending an entire year in Brazil.
I travelled a lot in the country, and had my own home some of the time, but the rest of the time would stay with friends. It struck me as incredibly odd, but the first question Brazilians would ask me whenever I arrived at their home was always if I wanted to have a shower!
This wasn’t saying anything about my B.O., but something that is customary to offer any guest who is visiting you in Brazil, including if they are not staying over. Brazil can be a hot country depending on the city and time of year, and Brazilians are among the most hygienic people I’ve ever come across, generally taking at least two and sometimes three showers a day, especially if they are physically active (gyms, sports etc.)
Because of this, Brazilians generally want to have a shower as soon as they arrive at someone’s house, to freshen up. The problem is that I’m so used to asking this that any time I have a Couchsurfer over at my place, or if it’s a somewhat hot day anywhere in the world and someone pops by my house, I just automatically ask the question of if they want to hop in the shower as soon as they enter.
You can imagine the looks I’ve gotten from asking this when people think I’m somehow implying they are smelly, or a girl who may be just a friend or a very different age to me thinking I have an ulterior motive! I’m just trying to be nice, as any Brazilian would, I swear!
2. Examine a business card or hand over money as if it were about to explode
This time, a habit I picked up in Taiwan, which stood out for me immediately after I arrived there, was that you treat anything that you can hand over to another person as sacred.
So if I meet you at a conference for instance, and you give me your business card, rather than glance at it and stuff it into my pocket, I will delicately accept it using both of my hands as if I’m holding a fragile piece of crystal and examine it closely for the incredible design, as if I was looking through a window into a wonderful parallel universe.
Only then can I put it into my left pocket, which is my “throw-into-the-bin-as-soon-as-they’re-gone pocket”.
And with money, the same rules apply. You don’t hand over any note with one hand, but withtwo, as if it will explode if handled incorrectly. I have shaken off this second habit due to spending long enough outside of Asia by now, but I have to admit that I still feel quite insulted whenever someone hands me money with one hand without forcefully putting their whole body into the delicate transfer. I definitely still take business cards with both hands though.
3. Point as if you’re flirting with a fish
In the Philippines, and strangely enough also in Colombia and other countries, they almost never point with their index finger (thus immediately nullifying the very title of index finger). This is considered quite rude in many cultures.
So what do you do if you genuinely need to point to something? Why, you use your lips of course! You need to pout them as if you are making a kissy-face and do so in the direction of the thing that requires the attention of the conversation. It’s not a long “point”, but more a quickpucker-up for a half a second.
I got so used to this, that I do it unconsciously now, even when I’m also pointing with my fingers too. So I look weird to pretty much everyone now!
4. Feel guilty about using the toilet
This is an odd one, but many countries in the world don’t have the same kind of plumbing system as we do in Europe and North America.
As such, in many countries in Africa, South America and Asia, you can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet!
Because of this, there is a bin beside the toilet for you to discard your “used” toilet paper. It seems disgusting at first to have that within sight, but after a while you get used to it. Now, I genuinely feel… guilty every time I flush toilet paper down the toilet itself, even when in a country where this is perfectly acceptable as the plumbing system can handle it, because I feel like I’m clogging up the pipes!
5. Call people at random intervals and hang up before they answer
Another habit I picked up, this time from Italy is the concept of a “squillo”.
You may generally understand this as a missed call, although it is always intentional. We do this all the time in most countries if we want to give someone our number, by noting theirs and then calling them just for a second, and they’d see our number on their caller ID.
Italians however take this to the next level and make it an entirely new form of communication! I wrote about it in detail here.
Basically, you call someone and then hang up such that the context of why you called is obvious. If you are meeting up with them but will arrive 10 minutes late, the squillo implies that you are on your way. If you are going out with someone and not meeting up with them right now but receive a very quick call where they hang up before you would pick up, this means that they are thinking about you (lovers or married couples etc.) If a guy friend gives another guy friend a squillo, it essentially means “whats up?” and you would text him back.
Essentially, you have these random moments throughout your day where your phone rings for just a second and then stops ringing. Now, the instinct of most non-Italians is to call this person back. Maybe it’s their way of saying they are out of credit for instance, and it’s urgent they talk to you. But the squillo itself was the communication; you have to extrapolate from the context what it means without calling them back!
As such, I call friends and hang up immediately all the time. In most countries though, they’ll call me back and we have an awkward conversation, which I was attempting to avoid precisely by giving them a squillo! I still can’t shake this habit, and have many weird phone conversations if people pick up before I finish my brief squillo, or think that I’m trying to get out of being the one paying for the call.
6. Regularly run into oncoming traffic as if you’ve had enough of this cruel world
As always, in my attempts to really get into a local culture, I tried to emulate the Egyptians as much as I could while living there this year. One problem though is that there are pretty much no traffic lights in major cities in Egypt; especially for the purposes of pedestrian crossings.
As such, your only option to get where you need to go is to run across five or more lanes of very rapidly approaching traffic to cross the road. At first you are as scared as hell, but then you get used to it.
Now, I’m in Germany which is as far as you can get from this idea as possible! German pedestrians will patiently wait at a red man traffic light even when there are literally no cars within sight. My first time in Germany, I got used to this and blended in. This time though, Egypt has gotten into my brain too much and I jaywalk all the time. I almost feel the urge to run into traffic when cars are zooming by, even though I’d only have to wait a few seconds and walk a few more metres for a pedestrian crossing.
It’s weird and I hope I shake this feeling soon before I get run over!
7. Unnecessarily drop money all over the place
One of the weirdest customs I’ve come across by far is in North America (both the US and Canada), where many waiters and waitresses are paid by customers rather than their boss (ridiculous, I know!)
They have this weird concept called “tipping”, where (and yes, I’m serious about this!!) you punish a waiter/waitress if the food that they didn’t prepare isn’t to your satisfaction, or if the restaurant they don’t own is busy and slowed down by no fault of their own. You also punish them if you happen to be in a bad mood that day, or if you are not earning enough money to be feeling generous enough to be spreading more around. Basically, you punish them by reducing the wage they rely on, for absolutely any reason you can think of, especially if it is not within their control.
This essentially means that their ability to earn a living is controlled more by dumb luck than anything else. To “punish” them, what you do is… pay something close to what is actually printed on your bill and requested that you pay. (Are you with me so far?) If, however, the waiter performs their task within your satisfaction, then you reward them with 15% of what your bill will be. If they carried the plates from the kitchen to your table extra skilfully, then you make it 20%!
I know, it makes no sense whatsoever – even though the effort of their work is the same, if you order the least expensive meal on the menu, they will earn less because the 15-20% is applied to what you ordered, even though they personally didn’t prepare it or pay for the ingredients. To make things more confusing, this “tipping” insanity is applied to some but not all of those who provide you with some kind of service. To pizza delivery, but not garbage collectors, to taximen, but not bus drivers.
I have been given vast explanations about why this is necessary, none of which make any sense to me compared to the waiter/waitress/pizza-delivery-boy just earning a normal salary like everyone else. They sometimes resort to sob stories about those waiters’ lives, ignoring how this same logic can equally be applied to teachers, nurses and many other very hard workers who (for whatever twist of logic) are not tipped and may not earn well.
But the fact of the matter is that this backwards system is not the waiters’ fault, and I don’t like punishing people for events outside of their control, so I always leave 15-20% extra. Rather than formally process this money though, the custom is to leave it on the table in plain view and walk away, as if the money is just more filth to be cleaned up, with your crumbs and dirty forks. And yes, I’m not making this up!
I got so used to this odd custom from living over 18 months in the US and Canada, that I can’t shake it, and to this day I leave money on tables in Europe and Asia even though they get paid a standard wage by their boss in most places. I’ve been programmed to be “a good tipper”, even though I complain more than anyone about how idiotic a concept it is.
Once, a waitress in Taiwan chased me down the street and said that I just left a heap of NT$ on the table! She asked me why I would do that when I already paid for my meal, and I honestly told her that I had no idea.. it was a force of habit! It’s like an annoying twitch for me now! Anexpensive (and unnecessary in most places outside of North America) annoying twitch…
8. Sentimental hellos and goodbyes every time
Time in Latin countries in general means that you simply cannot just say “hi” to those you meet in social situations. If either person is a girl, then you give a peck on the cheek… or two… or even three or four in some places! And in other places even guys do this between one another.
In places like Brazil you go a step further and embrace the person you see. You may have just seen them yesterday, but you still hug them as if you haven’t seen them for years and they have just been released from a decade in solitary confinement.
This warmth between people in social situations is contagious and very hard to shake. Also from Brazil, if I’m talking to someone I will maintain eye contact and even be touching them if possible – this has nothing to do with flirting, because even if guys are talking between one another you will keep your hand on one of their shoulders, and tug them a little if they happen to glance off into a different direction.
Finally, when it’s time to say goodbye (as in, see you tomorrow, not forever!) you have to give your farewells to each person in the group. This means that good-nights can take a really long time. In many Latin countries, I have learned to say the first goodbye about a half an hour before I actually have to leave, as I know it will take that long to get through everyone and wrap up our conversations.
The idea of just getting up and saying “OK, see you all later!” and walking away makes me shudder!
9. Slowly move many standing conversations in the direction I’m facing
Another consequence of the above point of more warmth in Latin countries, is that I have greatly reduced this horrible concept we have in some Northern European and North American countries of a personal bubble.
When you are talking with someone, you should do it a little closer to make sure that there is a greater sense of intimacy in the conversation (once again, this is between guys or with girls).
As such, whenever I am back in North America, or North Europe, if I’m sitting down, I always feel like the person I’m speaking to is too far away, and I’ll lean in. If I’m standing though, I’ll simply take a small step forward. A Northerner will then counter this with a small step back as I have been so bold as to enter their personal bubble. (Incidentally, the greater distance between people is perhaps one reason why Americans are so well renowned for their.. um.. skill for projecting their voice in public places more than the rest of us – they have to because everyone is so far away!)
This means that when standing, I try to reduce this wide gap between me and the other person, as it feels uncomfortable, and I may take a little step forward. The other person though, will do the exact opposite and increase the distance between us, as it otherwise feels uncomfortable to them. As a consequence, the conversation will always slowly move in whatever direction I happen to be facing.
Both of us do this unconsciously, and I’m always amazed when I look around me and realize that I’m suddenly several metres from where I initially started this conversation!
10. Take two hours to drink a single espresso
While living in France, I got used to this idea that an espresso is not about filling your blood up with caffeine, but about the experience of sitting at a café and enjoying the company of the person you are with, or if alone taking your time reading a book. As such, you order just one single espresso and take as much as several hours to slowly sip your way through it.
Obviously this means that you are essentially sipping a cool drink most of the time; it doesn’t matter though, as its purpose is just an excuse to sit down at this café.
This contrasts strongly with France’s neighbours, the Italians who frequently drink an espresso as if it were a shot and throw it back. Or with North Americans who drink coffee because they want to fill their blood up with caffeine, and as such many places there present an espresso or coffee in general in a hideous plastic cup.
I don’t drink coffee except socially or when I want to sit down at a café to study or read (never to wake up in the morning for instance), but when I do order a coffee it’s always an espresso in a nice little cup and it always takes me forever to drink it. Long lunches with French co-workers reminded me that the rest of us tend to be in way too much of a hurry when we sit down to eat or drink, making it too functional about getting those liquids and solids plonked into your stomach acids as soon as possible.
11. Nuke 700 friends
As part of my continued attempt to truly integrate and understand a local culture, my attempts to make friends in the Netherlands required so much lateral thinking, that I had a philosophical break-down of sorts on what the concept of friendship truly means.
Their circle of friends tends to be so tight, that it’s incredibly hard to break into it, especially if you don’t work or study with Dutch people. People I’d meet in parties that we were both attending downright refused to hang out with me any time later. A narrow-minded traveller would conclude that they are assholes and leave it at that (and sadly, most foreigners who live in Amsterdam tend to have very few local friends), but I couldn’t do this as I needed to improve my Dutch and was there specifically to find out what makes Dutch people tick.
Despite the fact that I was only there for eight weeks, I took this investigation of how to make friends so seriously that it broke down the very fabric of what the concept of to have a friendmeant for me. I eventually succeeded in getting into someone’s inner circle, but the price was that now it was too late to go back and this new understanding of friendship had infiltrated my brain permanently.
Now, I simply cannot seriously call someone a friend unless we genuinely know one another, or are part of some tight community.
Because of this, one of the first things I did in my transition to being stricter on who I call a friend, was to go into Facebook and nuke 700 people that I had added by meeting once in passing, or classmates from school I didn’t really know, or even an old friend who I had lost touch with for too long. The number of Facebook friends I have oscillates between 60 and 90 now, and I do regular spring cleaning to keep the number low.
I really can’t go back; to me the concept of having almost a thousand “friends” seems ludicrous and I roll my eyes every time I get a friend request from someone I barely know, or don’t know at all. Of course, I have a public setting on my Facebook page that people are welcome to follow, because I select updates and certain information to be either public or private, but why would I want to share some personal events in my life with someone I don’t know?
Unfortunately, this Dutch view of appreciating “true” friendships more than call absolutely everyone you come across a friend (rather than an acquaintance which is more accurate), doesn’t jive with the rest of the world well at all.
Some people have gotten very offended that I haven’t accepted their friend request, taking it almost like a personal insult, when ironically I am equally insulted that they have 2,000 “friends” and have no standards whatsoever on who they count as one. It’s even more frustrating because people have a stereotype of travellers having nothing but superficial friends that they cast on me, the hypocrisy of which boils my blood when coming from someone with four digits of people in their network that they can’t possibly know.
12. Being friendly with those in authority
In stark contrast to the one just above, I still maintain the very Irish philosophy that a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet, and am open to ultimately considering anyone a friend, and especially to genuinely be friendly to people as soon as I meet them.
I put no limits whatsoever on this concept (within reason). In Ireland, we have a tradition to talk to everyone with the same level of informality, regardless of wealth or status level. This includes police officers in the street (yes, we’d invite them to the pub for a drink; I can’t imagine sunglasses-wearing American police putting up with such friendliness towards them!), and your teachers in an adult language learning class. Everyone can be put on the same level and talked to informally.
This “lack of respect” has gotten me into serious trouble on some occasions with immigration officers, police officers, and my teachers. I have always found this formal/informal separation hard to get used to.
13. Haggle all the time, and without ever even saying a price
A wonderful skill that I picked up while living in India was the ability to haggle like the Indians do. This is very different to how we do it in the west (I say $10, you say $20, and we meet somewhere in the middle etc.), and has helped me secure fantastic prices on accommodation, and any items I may buy.
As I always tell people, being able to travel the world isn’t about earning lots of money, but learning how to spend what you have wisely.
Basically, rather than give a price yourself, you just refuse the prices they suggest to you and keep listing various random problems with what they are offering until they start reducing the price. You should never show that you are particularly interested in the item. Even your body language has to incorporate this, and you generally look over your shoulder at the item, ready to walk away. It is simply how haggling works in India.
I do this all the time in other places and it’s incredibly effective! Unless the price is printed on something, then it is always negotiable. I especially like buying items at flea markets because my Indian haggling skills come in quite handy! But I do it with accommodation whenever I can.
When I mixed Indian haggling techniques with Brazilian charm, I managed to get the best place I’ve ever lived in in my life – a huge penthouse apartment in Rio with a 270 degree panoramic view that included the Christ statue and sugar loaf mountain, very close to Copacabana beach etc. – for a few hundred dollars a month back in 2006! I haggle everything
14. Carry around a lighter even though I never have and never will smoke
A habit I picked up in Turkey and have kept with me whenever I’m in a country where way too many people smoke (such as this year in Egypt), is to always carry a lighter in my pocket.
The thing is, I think smoking is a disgusting habit, and whenever I’m in these countries I feel like I’m back in the 50s, and am reluctant to go to smoky bars or nightclubs, since they don’t realize how much they are polluting their own (and my) lungs. But there’s little I can do about it because people are smoking everywhere.
Even though someone is addicted to their cigarettes, for some strange reason they don’t ever seem to have a lighter most of the time! I mean, if I were a smoker, I would have my own lighter – it just makes sense to me.
But a consequence of this is that it’s very common to approach strangers and ask if they have a light, and was one of the most frequent interactions I had with people. By having a lighter, I had the chance to ask them a different question while I was lighting up their cigarette and get some language practice or ask about interesting events I could check out nearby. It’s become a force of habit, and I carry a lighter in my pocket about half of the year because of this!
15. Cover pizzas with ketchup
While Americans may find it weird that us Europeans take mayonnaise, look at French fries, and “drown them in that shit” some places take this to a whole new level!
One such idea is what they do in Rio de Janeiro – if you are eating a pizza there, you cover it with ketchup. So you’ll take a sachet of ketchup (since they rarely come in bottles there) per slice and drown your pizza with it.
The thing is, I’ve spent almost four months in Rio, most of the time trying to blend in as a Carioca, so I picked up this and many other habits. Now, no matter where I am, I apply this whenever I’m eating pizza and ketchup is handy. It gets me endless raised eyebrows…
16. Sleeping in the middle of the day
When you are in Spain and it’s the early afternoon, everything is closed and you have a 2+ hour break from work. It’s also hot as hell in the summer, so you don’t want to be walking around outside the shade.
As such, I got used to the idea of finding nice shade under a tree, or even going home if it’s convenient, and having a siesta.
Even though this is way less typical in other countries, I have a power nap now every single day,no matter where I am. This biphasic sleeping pattern comes with many advantages such as needing to sleep less overall, and getting over jetlag quickly.
17. Tell the truth so much it hurts
The Germans may have an odd reputation, but my experience has been that they are not rude at all. In Germany, and some other Northern European countries (and with the deaf community in the states), it’s more normal to be straight with people, and give them the direct truth without sugar coating it. Being direct is a way to show that you respect that person. This wonderful concept is one that I have picked up and emulated myself, and it has helped me integrate into these cultures much better.
In some other countries though, especially Canada, the opposite is true, and you are required to sandwich any unfortunate truths between compliments, or buffer it with pleasantries. To me now, this beating around the bush is all a total waste of time.
As such, I have to constantly remind myself when with certain cultures to add in lots of misleading words like “That’s a pretty good idea, but how about if…” (instead of “That idea is terrible. This one is better”) or “I’ll think about it!” (instead of “No way in hell”) and other nonsense, that you say for no reason other than to protect the feelings of the person you are speaking to.
A Canadian commenter on my Facebook, Sofie, said this to really emphasize the differences: I was taking pictures of the food at a Starbucks (in Germany) and for some weird reason, that’s not allowed. A worker there came up to me: “Don’t take pictures please,” he said very strictly. In Canada, that would go something more like this: “Hello. I am so sorry but we prefer it if customers don’t take pictures. Thank you very much for your cooperation, we appreciate it. Have a nice day.”
Of course, when I speak more “efficiently” with people in some countries this comes across as too blunt. Once again I’m left offending people and then feeling frustrated myself that nobody is straight with me (for constructive purposes) and that I feel like I’m stuck in a dialogue with Barney the pink and happy dinosaur.
18. Have the weirdest exclamations
Whenever I stub my toe, or feel angry and curse, or give out a happy exclamation, the thing is that it’s not usually in English unless I’m surrounded by English speakers. Generally these things come out of me in another language without me thinking twice about it, including if I’m alone.
For instance, if I hurt myself, instead of saying “Ow!” or “Ouch!” I’ll actually say Owa!! (as inGerman, written Aua) or ¡Ay! (in Latin America) depending on which language is lingering around in my brain at the time.
When I feel like cursing, I feel I can express it better with Spain‘s “¡¡Me cago en…!!” (with colourful continuations of that, including la leche, la puta que te parió, la Virgen, la hostia and more; it’s a pretty versatile phrase).
19. Translate weird expressions that shouldn’t be translated
I’ve got a pretty good way of not mixing up languages, but it isn’t perfect! As such, some will ooze into other ones, and this includes invasions into my English.
There are some things that you simply say all the time in other languages, but don’t in English.
For instance, the first weeks after coming back from Egypt and speaking Arabic, I found that any time I referred to the future, I was missing an “Inshallah”. As an atheist, I am hardly going to say “God willing” in English, but I did keep over-using a somewhat equivalent “Hopefully” – and way too much. “I’ll see you tomorrow at lunch time… hopefully!” “Next year the world cup will take place in Brazil… hopefully!” and other very odd uses.
Many languages also have a subjunctive form used to express hope that something will happen, whereas in English we just use an imperative. This means that I have awkwardly back-translated Spanish’s “¡Que te diviertas!” to “May you have fun!” and then realized how weird that sounds only after it has come out of my mouth.
Some individual words are really missing from English, and I use their weak translations even when I shouldn’t. For instance, the word “Si” in French or “Doch” in German means “Yes” when answering a negative question, to avoid confusion that you are contradicting what was said rather than the actual meaning of agreeing with it.
So I tend to overuse “Indeed!” in these situations in English. Aren’t you coming? Weren’t you already in that place? Can’t you swim? – indeed! This obviously doesn’t answer the question well at all! Indeed yes or indeed no??
Then there are the set expressions. I have actually said “To live like a king’s body!” (Vivir a cuerpo del rey – instead of to live like a king – what can I say, the Spanish one makes more sense, since a king’s mind has to worry about wars and famine and all that unpleasantness!)
20. Confusing hand signals
In some countries, the way you express certain ideas are very different to other ones. It took memonths to shake off the Filipino way of expressing that you want to get the menu or bill in a restaurant, but even to this day if I want to really emphasize that something is “full”, I do a very Brazilian open-close hand movements with all my fingers together. It’s unconscious at this stage.
After almost six entire months in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong, I couldn’t help but count in a very Chinese way on my fingers. To this day, six feels more natural to make a “telephone” shape with one hand, than to start using a second one.
“Delicious” feels more natural to drill my index finger into my chin, rather than to rub my tummy (something else I picked up from the Italians), and if you stop me in the street and ask for directions (in any language), rather than show “walk” as two fingers of a hand moving, thanks to learning sign language, I use both hands in a forward-backward wave motion.
21. Never wearing shoes in the house
This tradition is so prominent everywhere that I can’t even think any more what countries don’t do it! So many European and Asian and South American countries leave their shoes at the entrance – while in the house (yours or someone else’s) you go around in your socks or bare feet.
As such, when in America and visiting a friend, if I take off my shoes at their door I always get the weirdest look from them.
22. Applauding whenever my plane lands
This very odd custom is one you’ll find popular between many countries, that us Northerners (EU/America) find very odd. I generally wouldn’t initiate it, but if as much as one other person begins clapping, then I join along and give the plane a huge round of applause as soon as we touch down!
People get cynical about flying a lot, but I still think that it’s a pretty amazing thing and an advance in technology we take for granted too much. I love how Louis CK discusses it in this video (from the 4:00 point). So yeah, a big round of applause to the wonders of science getting me somewhere in a few hours that would have been a journey of several months just a few centuries ago!
23. Awkward social interactions when mixing up the rules
As you can imagine, there are some contradictions above (being stricter on what a friend is, but still being friendly with everyone? Being straight with people, but then lying and pretending to care about the craftsmanship of that crappy logo and brainless motto you’ve put on your business card?) – this is my life in a nutshell!
I have such a mess of social rules that disagree with themselves bouncing around in my head, that every single time I start talking to a new person I end up slipping up on one of them, and giving them one too many pecks on the cheek, being too close or too far away when talking, being too straight with them and offending them, or not being straight enough with them and having them not take me seriously.
It’s certainly exhausting that I essentially have to change everything about how I interact with people so regularly because I bounce around so much. It’s gotten to the extent that I find it impossible to say what comes naturally to me any more. Many things on this list come naturally to me now, but I try to suppress them if they aren’t natural to the country I am currently in. Customs that I grew up with and were a natural part of my world for two decades have had to be unlearned so that I can make new friends across the planet easier.
Or what about if you invite a girl out for a date? Should you be more Latin and traditional and hold the chair for her, pay for the meal, and tell her she’s pretty? Well then prepare yourself for a very offended girl if she happens to be from some countries where all that is patrionizing and a little sexist.
In travelling all this time, I have had to not only learn multiple languages, but I’ve had to learn multiple sets of social rules and “fluently” switch between them as I meet people of different nationalities. Whenever I’m successful, I can proudly say that I have made a new connection because they feel more comfortable with me, seeing that I talk to them like their peers back home do. But if I slip up even a little, then I can easily offend people, or (for me just as bad) not have them interested in spending more time with me, since I’m “just another annoying tourist”.
This is much more true than the ridiculous idea that you can ever frustrate people as a language learner! How you act, and what you are generally saying is everything in a social interaction. The actual words coming out of your mouth (or their efficient conjugation etc.) are only a fraction of this.
I shall continue onward in my attempt to learn these fascinating things that separate us and all the many more things that we have in common across different cultures. If I meet you in person some day, and act very strange it may be because I am in fact just very strange, but it may also be because my wires are crossed on which social norm I am supposed to be applying with your nationality. I hope you’ll forgive me if that happens, and be straight with me about it
So what have you learnt from your travels? Can you add to the list?
This article was originally published on Benny’s blog here and has been republished with permission.
Benny is a single, “techno-mad”, vegetarian entrepreneur and globe trotter. In 2003, he fell in love with different cultures and languages after living in Spain, and after his many travels, he is now fluent in eight! You can read more at his blog, Fluent in 3 months here. You can also find his Twitter page here and his Facebook page here. He has given an excellent TEDx talk to encourage other adults to get into language learning late in life and succeed, as he did.
If you liked this, definitely subscribe to his website’s email list for encouraging language learning tips, and to find out about his upcoming ten year anniversary post when he submits it! On the same page he has also listed female-authored posts on his blog about raising a bilingual child, learning languages as a couple, why women should be multilingual and other encouragement about getting started in language learning.