Tourists Share Their Most Interesting Cultural Observations Abroad

As we go about our daily lives and routines we rarely think too much about what we’re doing. We go to work, we come home, and we go out. What seems normal to us, though, may seem a bit strange to those on the outside. Of course, from our perspective the same thing can be said about people living in other countries. When we go on vacation, we’re likely to see something that may seem incredibly strange to us, yet is perfectly normal to the local residents. It’s easy for tourists to misinterpret and misunderstand local norms and traditions. Dynamic cultural differences may explain some of the strange things we experience, but some of these cultural norms are probably better left unexplained.

25. Cleanliness In Asia

When I traveled to Tokyo and Seoul everything was so clean. The trains were clean, the streets, etc. I’m used to seeing gum and smoke butts and other garbage all over the sidewalk and hobos in the aisle of the trains in American cities.

In South Korea one thing that shocked me was that it seemed every adult male there smoked. I couldn’t recall a single adult male that didn’t.


24. No Privacy In The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, it’s pretty common for ground floor apartments to have huge unobscured windows looking into the living room, open for all to see, even in busy neighborhoods. Inside you’ll see an immaculate IKEA-catalogue living room. Any people inside will just be doing things in their living room, unfazed by onlookers. I feel bad for looking in whilst passing, but I can’t look away.


23. Pizza Eating Etiquette

In Argentina, every slice of pizza, either purchased by itself or as a whole pie, is topped with a single, whole green olive right near the crust. People consume said pizza, as well as French fries, with a knife and fork. It is incredibly uncouth to use your hands.


22. Family Friendly Sauna

I did the sauna thing when I was in Helsinki, with a local guide taking me to one. It was weird just taking my clothes off and sitting there in a very hot room with other men. Especially when they tried to strike up a conversation with you, they feel they are going to the pub. He told me that private family/friends saunas are not gender segregated so people hang out with their friends and family. For British people, this just wouldn’t happen!


21. Drinking While Driving

There are no laws against drinking and driving in Trinidad.

My girlfriend and I hired a taxi driver for the day to take us up to this bird sanctuary in the rainforest so we could go hiking. After about 3 hours of hiking, we get back to the lodge to find out the taxi driver had finished a six pack and picked one up for the road. On the way back to the hotel he was drinking adult beverages while driving down these stupid narrow, winding mountain roads that had 300-500 foot drop-offs on the side. We had a few adult beverages too so that we weren’t so nervous about our tipsy taxi driver.


20. Through Rain, Sleet, Or Snow

People riding bicycles in Finland when everything was completely frozen (it was February). I asked a dude about it and he just said, “Yeah, it’s pretty dangerous. When I leave in the morning I’m almost certain I’ll fall but it’s faster than walking to school. Your whole face freezes though.” It just seems like there are more cons than pros to it.


19. Sharing Food

I lived in Korea for a few years and one small cultural difference that takes getting used to is sharing food. Most restaurants serve food family style so you’re all sharing plates/bowls/etc (Except for your rice)… Getting used to sharing plates is pretty easy as you’re picking food off with your chopsticks and don’t really touch the other food but to me sharing soup took a little longer.


18. In Orderly Fashion

When I was in Taiwan waiting for the bus, I saw everyone getting in line to board. It was the strangest thing, no one was pushing or shoving to get on first. Everyone just waited for their turn, like civilized people. You don’t see groups of people taking up the whole sidewalk there, either. Now I’m back home and I feel surrounded by barbarians sometimes.


17. Order To Go

Once I was at a 7-11 in Korea, trying to decide between the things that I think were Oreos and the bag of what was probably Doritos. As I was deep in thought, I heard something come up next to me and start making a ton of noise. I look over, and it is a dude on a scooter inside the 7-11, and he is frantically waving at me to get out of the way. In shock, I take a step back to clear a path and he goes full throttle through the aisle and out the back door.

I looked over to the cashier and he had his nose buried in a newspaper and couldn’t be bothered by the whole thing.

I’ve always wondered if that is a normal occurrence there or if I was the victim of a crazy prank.


16. The Sounds Of Silence

I went to the cinema in Japan to see a Harry Potter film (in English with Japanese subtitles). The film was good, I guess the humor didn’t translate well into Japanese which is fine, but at times I was the only person laughing in an every-seat-filled cinema.

Anyway, that wasn’t the weird thing. When the film finished and the credits rolled, no one moved. I started packing up my things and realized I was the only person in a room of at least 100 people making a move to leave. So I sat down again.

I realized they were sitting and attentively watching the credits. All 5 minutes of them. Then, after they ended, everyone politely and quietly collected their things in a hushed silence. I was flabbergasted – in the UK everyone stands up as soon as the end credits start!


15. Public Displays Of Affection

Men holding hands in the Middle East.

Despite the extreme social taboo against homosexuality in most parts of the Middle East (it’s also usually a capital offense), men holding hands is a perfectly normal and acceptable sign of friendship, rather than the signifier of a romantic relationship that it would be in the West.


14. Apparently They’re Not A Man’s Best Friend

I went to Sicily for a month last year. The way dogs were treated was so cruel… Some were chained up all day, others roamed free with no shelter, most were malnourished to the point you’d see their rib bones sticking out. I was passing by a home in the town I was staying at and a man kicked his dog for barking at us. I love dogs so it was hard to see (beautiful island and friendly people though).


13. Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto

In South Africa, they call traffic lights “robots.”

“How can I get to the grocery store?”

“Just drive straight until the next robot, turn right, and you’ll be there now-now.”

Many of them say robot with special emphasis on the ‘r’… ‘rrrrobot’. First time I heard it, was rather surreal.


12. Time To Be Quiet

In the country of Samoa, in the evening time around 7:00 in most villages, dozens of men go out to stand out in the road in front of their homes and blow on conches to mark the “sa,” or a quiet prayer time. It is illegal to be anywhere walking in the village, to be loud, etc., for the length of the 5-10 minute sa.


11. Mob Justice

Not sure if this normally happens or not, but my first day in Uganda, I witnessed a car accident between a truck and car. The car rear-ended the truck and then took off. The truck had minor damage and was still functional, but instead of chasing the car in his truck he got out of his car jumped on the back of some other dude’s motorcycle and they chased him on that.

Meanwhile, two other bikes joined in the chase just because. It all happened in seconds and I don’t know how it ended, but I was amazed that these motorcycle drivers were totally down to just high-speed chase this car for a stranger.


10. Driver Perks In Vietnam

When I visited Vietnam for the first time to see my family there, we took a taxi from Ha Long to Hanoi. In the middle of the ride, we stopped at a restaurant, and I expected the driver to drive off, but instead, we had a cozy family meal with the taxi driver at the same table! Apparently, some hotels in the South will even give the taxi driver a free room if your group stays the night. It was kind of nice but also bizarre, especially if you tried to imagine that happening in the West.


9. Driving And Eating In America

United States:

  • Drivers not using turn signals.
  • TVs at bars and restaurants everywhere, even upscale places.
  • People with full-time jobs getting like 10 days off a year.
  • A majority of people eating out for lunch every day.
  • Apparently, it was common knowledge you should not rely on the bus to get anywhere, plus only very poor and homeless seem to ride it.


8. Friendly Beep

I went to American Samoa on a research trip and I was absolutely blown away by the kindness and warmth of the locals. Basically, every car had a separate little horn, more of a chirp really, that they would use to get people’s attention on the sidewalk just so they could smile and wave. Everyone just really wanted to interact and be kind to everyone else. Coming back to the US everyone looked at me like a freak when I would wave and smile to random strangers for the next week.


7. Tax On Flavor

In Umbria, part of Italy, for hundreds of years they have refused to put salt in their bread because of a salt tax imposed when the Pope was fighting the Holy Roman Emperor. They got so used to it, they never changed it, but I assure you, Italian bread tastes better with salt.


6. No Harm, No Foul

In a tuk-tuk on a highway in Cambodia. The tuk-tuk driver was crazy! He flew into the back of a moped with four people on it. A girl of about 12 fell off the back, the moped stopped. Without giving it a second thought, the tuk-tuk driver kept driving (was actually waved on by traffic police). The 12-year-old girl dusted herself off, hopped back on to the moped and they continued on their way. Absolutely crazy!


5. Ride Sharing In Ethiopia

In the Omo Valley region in Ethiopia, we were traveling North so we caught an already quite full van with few spaces available. I managed to accommodate half myself in a seat and a Norwegian friend sat above the tire when suddenly a tribesman wearing only a loincloth and holding a long stick got in. All the seats were taken so he stood next to my Norwegian friend.

We kind of expected this since the zone is populated mainly by tribes. After few kilometers, the driver stopped, cramped more people and 3 goats, two in the roof and one behind the last row of seats. We definitely did not expect this. It was an incredibly funny, uncomfortable and surreal situation with my friend trying not to bump into the tribesman on every bump and the goats screaming like they were getting slaughtered… good old traveling times.


4. Finding A Trash Can In Japan

Japan: The lack of public trash cans. I come from Denmark, and there is a trash can at every bus stop, every street corner, everywhere. You rarely have to carry something around for more than a few minutes at most. But in Japan, I found less than 3 public trash cans during the months I was staying there. The Japanese people are just like, “Oh … yeah, just put it in your bag or in your trash when you come home.”

And oh my God, the fake bird noises being played by speakers hiding in bushes and trees everywhere. I only really experienced this in Kyoto and nearby places, but all over Japan, there is some kind of tweeting/chirping sound coming from the pedestrian crossings. Maybe to aid blind people?

People vacuuming the outside areas of train stations. Yes, it really is that clean some places.


3. Irish Hospitality

I am an American who traveled to Ireland last summer. Everywhere you go, be it a pub, restaurant, or shop, people would ask one thing:

“Are you okay?”

This phrase really threw me off. At first, I was like, “why, do I look ill?” For example, if someone in the U.S. were to ask, “are you okay?” it would be to inquire about one’s well-being. If I were to answer, “yes,” that would imply that I am fine and content and they would leave me be. Were I to answer “no,” they would follow up with “what’s wrong,” as the implication is that I am somehow not okay, ill, unwell, or otherwise disagreeable.

But I guess it’s their way of greeting, along the lines of “how may I help you?” So I just started going along with answering “yes” and immediately just give them my order. I’m still not entirely sure what the etiquette is/was, and some of my servers looked at me like I was a space alien when struggling to come up with a response. They were super friendly though! I have yet to meet anyone who can match the hospitality and friendliness of the Irish.


2. Brazilian State Of Mind

I spent a year in Brazil, coming from Switzerland. The biggest things were:

The general state of paranoia. Despite my city being one of the safest ones in Brazil, everyone was always scared. Not even of anything specific, just of a vague notion of potential crime. Fenced off houses, forcing students (aged ~18) to stay in school until their parents get them, being afraid to take a taxi alone. Stuff like that.

Disrespect of rules and lack of organization. Not waiting for people to cross a road was the one that affected me the most, but some other things include terribly slow bureaucracy (I still don’t have my health insurance… it’s been years since I was back home) and schools that just don’t work. The classes are too big – teachers have no control over the class. They’d had at least 5 years of English classes and couldn’t say a simple sentence. I confronted the English teacher about what the heck she was even doing and she just defended herself that those who wanted to learn English could go to private classes.


1. Send In The Clowns

A clown at a baby shower. Living in Peru and I got invited to a friend’s baby shower (that’s a weird enough thing for me). I arrived and there was a clown running around the room making everyone dress up like babies and doing weird things. I absolutely hate clowns, hardly spoke the language and I was the only foreigner. Needless to say that when I left I spent the rest of the night in the pub!