In the US there are a few “cultural norms” that we inevitably become accustomed to. But as it turns out, most other countries have quite different norms that can be a bit shocking when you first arrive. Read on before you leave the US to prepare yourself for what you may encounter in many countries around the world…
Cars and motorbikes honk as a warning, not to tell you that they are angry.
This was one that initially confused me but in hindsight makes complete sense. When cars are passing other cars or backing up or rounding blind corners they honk to say “Be careful! I’m here!” If there is a lot of traffic on a particular street, there will inevitably be a lot of honking. This seems to be a better use of the horn then how Americans use it – as a kind of middle finger gesture to show other drivers how pissed off they are.
The tip left at the end of a dining experience or taxi ride is generally just a rounding up of the total, or 10%.
A tip is defined as “
Used toilet paper goes in the trash, not in the toilet.
In most countries, their pipes can’t handle human waste AND toilet paper. This is very difficult to get used to and would it would be gruesome punishment to have trash duty at the end of the day.
Speaking of toilet paper… it’s a rarity in public bathrooms.
If you think you’ll need it, grab a handful of napkins on your way in.
And speaking of public bathrooms… you’ll regularly run into toilets that are missing a seat or aren’t even really toilets at all.
“Squatty potties” are quite common outside of the US – they consist of a drain with two foot rests on each side. Remove any valuables from your pockets before dipping down low. Also, don’t forget to bring small change with you as most public bathrooms charge a fee for use.
Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way.
Even when you see those white stripped lines painted on the street, that does not mean cars will stop for you. In fact, cars will generally not stop for you. Be sure to check both ways carefully and then run across for dear life! If you happen to rent a car and you stop frequently to give pedestrians the right of way you’ll just confuse them and anger the cars behind you.
Bigger is not necessarily better.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a triple vente latte in a to-go cup in most other countries. Coffee is savored in cafes that line cobblestone pedestrian streets and it only comes in one size – tiny. And in general, the portion sizes are not “super sized” like we are used to in the US.
Everything is closed on Sundays.
Well, not EVERYTHING. But you certainly wouldn’t want to save your souvenir shopping for a Sunday. Or a holiday. Restaurants and groceries are usually open but most shops are closed. Also, many shops and restaurants close for “siesta” in the middle of the day.
There are no clothes dryers.
Line drying is the standard in most countries outside of the US. I’m not sure if it’s due to availability or energy efficiency but don’t expect that fluffy, straight-out-of-the-dryer softness.
In fact, it can be very difficult to find laundry facilities.
Depending on where you are, laundry mats are generally few and far between. Many Airbnb hosts or guesthouses offer laundry service for minimal cost or for free but if you’re like me you will probably feel a bit guilty for going that route. Better yet, rent a room that offers a washing machine and a drying rack.
You can drink the water.
In a lot of countries, the tap water is totally fine to drink. Many islands use reverse osmosis so the taste won’t be great but it shouldn’t get you sick. You can check this website prior to visiting; http://isthewatersafetodrink.com/
You’ll probably find a hair in your food.
If you’ve ever found a hair in your food in the US you’ve probably started gagging and had a server run to your assistance, whisk the repugnant food away, bring you a new dish, and not charge you a dime for your meal. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. If you do make a scene they’ll likely just take your plate to the back, remove the offensive hair, and bring it back out to you. Pick it out yourself and just hope it fell from their head…
The price is negotiable.
Most markets in most countries have a “tourist price” and a “local price” and you’ll notice that there are no price tags on anything. The first price that is quoted to you is generally just a jumping off price for negotiations. Start really low (50% of the asked price is standard) and plan on meeting somewhere in the middle. But note – don’t play hardball if you have no intention of buying. And some areas (like Croatia) have just one price for all and don’t appreciate bartering. The price of some excursions and hotels may be flexible as well.
Safety regulations aren’t the same.
There are so many laws in the US meant to protect its citizens; seat belt laws, car seat laws, laws related to food safety and architectural structural safety. Many other countries don’t have such stringent rules. You’ll see babies being held in the front seat of cars or piled on the back of mopeds. Sidewalks and roads with giant potholes that are an accident waiting to happen. Raw sewage flowing down half pipes on the side of the street. Or bridges that look like you could fall through at any moment. Use caution to avoid taking a tour of the local emergency room.
You might need a visa.
And it might not be a visa-on-arrival. Countries like India, Myanmar, and Brazil all require a pre-arranged visa prior to entering the country. And some are more difficult to obtain than others. Make sure to do your research prior to leaving for the airport.
Your debit card might stop working.
Even if you are super vigilant in clearing all of your cards for international use, there’s always the chance that something will happen that will keep you from getting cash. And in many countries most taxis, restaurants, and shops are cash-only. Have some spare cash and a back-up card, just in case.
You don’t need cash in advance of your arrival.
Just stop at the ATM on your way out of the airport. Every airport has at least one. The fees are much lower than the currency exchange kiosks.
Everyone smokes. Everywhere.
In hotel rooms, on buses, in restaurants. There are no “designated smoking areas” (except in airports) and no one cares whether or not they are tainting your precious lungs. If someone near you is smoking and it’s bothering you, you’ll be the one expected to relocate.
And lastly, be sure to check on a few things prior to arriving at the airport:
- Conversion rate (this is important for getting money out of the ATM)
- Cost of a taxi to your hotel (taxis are notorious for taking advantage)
- Appropriate dress (do you need to cover your knees/shoulders)
- Learn a few phrases like “hello” and “thank you” in the language
- Make sure you don’t need to show proof of onward travel (this generally only applies if you are traveling to an island)