Culture and Customs Guides for Foreign Countries

Understanding local customs can play an important role while traveling

Cultural Guides
Navigate a foreign culture more efficiently with a proper guide. Kraig Becker

Learning about a country's customs and culture can help guide travelers through sometimes-challenging foreign waters, without leading to embarrassing faux pas. For instance, it is not uncommon for a well-dressed Japanese gentleman to make loud slurping noises while he downs his soup in a noodle shop. In some cultures, that would be considered rude, but in Japan, it is rude not to do it. Knowing that beforehand can make a big difference in the level of enjoyment and immersion you get while there.

Understand which countries find direct eye contact to be appropriate and where it's considered impolite, or knowing where pointing with your finger is considered insulting, may make a big difference in a local's attitude when interacting with you. If we understand and respect the local customs it can make a huge difference in how we connect with others.

Author, speaker, and culture guru Dean Foster suggests that savvy travelers do a little research on local customs and attitudes before setting out for any new destination. Most business travelers know to study the local cultural landscape before visiting a foreign place, but those traveling for pleasure don't always do the same.

For more than 25 years Foster has been sharing his cultural knowledge with Fortune 500 companies, including Volkswagen, Heineken and Bank of America. He has routinely written about these themes for National Geographic Traveler and is the author of multiple books – along with several iPhone apps – that provide tips on global etiquette.

Why View a Culture Guide Before Visiting a Foreign Country?

Foster says, "Business travelers, of course, need to understand cultural differences because money is on the line: bad behavior causes misunderstandings, and misunderstandings can kill the deal. However, leisure travelers need to understand culture also for several reasons."

Those reasons include:

  • Getting out of the antiseptic tourist bubble: you can't fully understand what you're experiencing unless you experience it from within "their" context, not your own. Most tourists rarely get beyond the superficial "awe" factor when they experience a different culture; understanding the culture provides a far more enriching, deeper experience.
  • You may not ever become fluent in all the languages of all the countries you visit, but you CAN become culturally-fluent quickly enough to connect with the locals in a way that cultural ignorance, coupled with language ignorance, can never provide.
  • In a global world, we are all "ambassadors" of our own culture, and leisure travelers – like business travelers – have a responsibility to present their country in the best possible light. Reinforcing local negative stereotypes of your own country through behaviors that reflect ignorance of the local culture while abroad is as irresponsible as environmental ignorance.
  • If you're a more enlightened traveler, chances are you'll gain more from your experiences as well.

Where to Find Guides to Foreign Customs & Cultures

If you're looking for cultural guidebooks to help you prepare for an upcoming trip, be sure to check out Blue Guides. The company offers a number of well-researched and written tomes for destinations like Italy, Greece, Hungry, Jordan, and numerous others. The Blue Guides website even features articles and stories to help travelers prepare for their next destination as well.

Another amazing online resource is the Culture Smart website, which offers excellent books for a wide range of destinations as well, including some that are more off the beaten path. The publisher specializes in travel and culture, with something to offer just about everyone. The books tend to focus on the attitudes, beliefs, and behavior in different countries, so travelers get an understanding of what to expect before they leave home. They also describe basic manners, common courtesies, and sensitive issues and are available as e-books too.

There are also a number of cultural guides found in the form of apps for iOS and Android these days too. For instance, the Air Force Cultural Guide and Language Center (iOS/Android) is a great resource to have on your phone when traveling, as is the Bilbao Not Tourist and Cultural Guide app (iOS/Android). New travel apps are being developed and released all the time, so it's always a good idea to search the App Store or Google Play store before setting out on your next trip.

Know What Locals Are Saying After Free Language Lessons

Free language lessons are another route to befriending locals more easily. There are many websites where you can learn any language from Chinese to Italian, along with dozens of others. Picking up a new language isn't always easy, but it does offer some interesting insights into a foreign culture. Plus, it makes navigating through that country much easier too. 

New technology is also making it easier to communicate while traveling too. For instance, the Google Translate app for iOS and Android can do a real-time translation of 59 different languages, which can be extremely handy for frequent travelers.