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Have you ever made a faux pas?

#AskAQuestion: Have you ever made a faux pas while travelling?

Some weeks ago we had the pleasure to be hosted at the university lesson of savoir-vivre for the degree in management of social projects. Students had lots of questions, one of them being to name moments in which we made a faux pas during our journey. As simple as it sounds, it was actually quite difficult to recall such moments in our mind. Not because we don't make social mistakes, but because nobody really tells us when we do.

Most probably we didn't even notice much of the gaffes we did. Sometimes we discovered them later, going deeper into the culture. After few weeks in Indonesia and hours spent on discussing with local people, we got to know that expressing emotions, especially anger or frustration, is considered rude and nobody does it, doesn't matter what. And yes, we did express anger or frustration before realizing it. We made all possible mistakes while trying to drink our first mate in Uruguay. Fortunately, people in that region of South America tend to be straightforward and they immediately helped us to understand what is right and what is wrong. Religious aspects also complicate matters, there are a lot of rules about who can enter the temple, what is allowed, what to get cleaned/purified before, where to put your shoes and where to look, the same goes for meeting monks or priests. Every single religion, and all its denominations, has its own rules. In Myanmar Anna, as a woman, could shake hands with a Buddhist monk and he could ask us for money, both things strictly forbidden to Buddhists monks in Thailand, where Anna couldn't even hand a bottle of water to the monk, the object should pass thought the hand of a man first.

It's much easier to name situations in which not knowing cultural norms made our life more complicated. Coming back to Indonesia, in many places eating meals together is not a thing. The women cook in the morning and leave food in the kitchen, people eat when they feel like. Anna didn't realize that and the first day at her new Indonesian host she was starving, waiting for a meal. At breakfast nothing happened. Lunch went unnoticed. Only in the evening she started to ask how does it work with food. For her host it was so obvious that food is in the kitchen and anybody can eat it at wish, that it did not come to her mind to explain how it goes – she didn't realize somewhere else it works differently. In Thailand people will hardly say „I don't know” when you ask for information. Which was tricky when we tried to understand Bangkok public transport asking people for the right way or the proper bus number we have to take. We couldn't understand why it wouldn't work. We went to one bus, then somebody else pointed to another one, which also proved wrong, and so on so that every time we ended up taking more than 2 hours to go from any given point to another. Only when one of our couchsurfers explained us the trick we started to triple-check the information.

One of the biggest challenges when travelling is to put together meetings and expectations of the many people we meet – being our hosts, changemakers we interview, organizations we do events for. We always have to juggle to navigate between spending enough valuable time with people that host us and securing slots for interviewing or organizing workshops. Depending on the culture, people can have different approaches to planning, communication, punctuality, different expectations toward their guest and we simply don't know all those nuances, and we are sure sometimes we end up offending somebody by rejecting invitations or even trying to have a say on the hour, going out too early from the meeting or coming back home too late, etc.

Is there a way to avoid a faux pas and cultural misunderstandings? For sure preparation helps – reading about the culture, speaking with people who may know about it. Although we don't do it that often. What we try to base upon is observation and empathy – we try to really read through rules and routines of the place we are and adjust to them, at least at the beginning. If we are long enough in one place we may try to bring some change, but this requires a deep understanding of why things are the way they are. We talk with people, when possible, about their culture and believes, we listen carefully and try to respect what we hear. Knowing the language helps a lot. And when misunderstanding happens - it will sooner or later -, we try to rather smile or laugh about it instead of being frustrated or ashamed. It has to be said that in most of the cases people excuse our mistakes without problems, knowing we are alien to their context. And we try to do the same – accept things instead of fighting against them. Accept that our customs, our culture, our beliefs are not the only way and definitely they are not better, smarter nor more right. Being open you can learn a lot, realizing how much your own beliefs are just convictions and assumptions, not the universal truth.

Do you have more questions? Comment here or drop us a message and we will be happy to answer them!

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