When you’re abroad, you may find that “common courtesy” isn’t exactly universal. It’s easy to overlook seemingly insignificant issues such as personal space, hand gestures, and the volume of your speaking voice in public. Consequently, you may not realize that locals may misconstrue your interactions and demeanor as inconsiderate even when you have pleasant intentions. Since etiquette varies by culture, here are a few general formality tips to consider before immersing yourself in a new country:

4 Things to do Before Visiting a Foreign Country

1. Learn basic expressions and greetings in the culture’s native language

Nobel Peace Prize-winning philanthropist Nelson Mandela once said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart."

Even if locals can speak English, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to converse in that language. It’s polite to greet people in their native tongue since it shows that you invested some effort into understanding and learning about their culture. To aid your language learning, the Duolingo mobile app is a fun, convenient, and simple way to acquire basic grammar and vocabulary of numerous languages including French, Spanish, Dutch, and more.

2. Research your destination’s public social norms

As mentioned previously, proper etiquette highly depends on which country or region you plan to visit. For example, you can jaywalk in Boston without a second thought, but if you attempt this same behavior in Germany, you may be fined or berated by passersby. Similarly, the tipping culture is different in each country (in Japan, leaving a tip is considered rude) and the proper amount fluctuates depending on the type of restaurant (e.g. fine dining, casual eatery, takeout, etc.).

Before embarking on your trip, become acquainted with the culture’s appropriate dress code, body language, and greetings to avoid being unintentionally offensive. Conversely, you’ll also learn about locals’ code of conduct and realize aloofness may be the norm in certain countries, and that it’s nothing to worry about.

3. Become familiar with private cultural customs

Perhaps you’ll be invited to dinner at a local’s home—you should be prepared with some knowledge of how to be a respectful guest in case you don’t have the time or means to quickly research etiquette rules. Just like social norms displayed in public, cultural norms practiced and observed in a foreign host’s home differs from country to country. In China, it’s impolite to wear your shoes into the house, so you should remove and place them at the door before entering.

4. Review the country’s history and its past conflicts

Not only will you be more informed about the culture in general, but you’ll be mindful about sensitive topics when speaking with locals. Moreover, you can develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of diverse influences on the area’s architecture, cuisine, and customs.

For example, since the French colonized Vietnam, several Vietnamese dishes were inspired by French ingredients such as the bánh mì sandwich that includes pâté on a baguette. Likewise, notable structures in Vietnam including the Saigon Opera House and Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica feature materials imported from France as well as architectural elements characterized by the French Colonial style.

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This article was written by Justina Tran.