Travel Blog

September 22, 2022

European Customs 101: Travel Faux-Pas and How To Avoid Them

Every culture is different and even if you have travelled to Europe before, there are probably a few do’s and don’ts you do not yet know about. So today, we will give you a little lesson on European customs. Here are some tips on how to behave and how not to behave as a tourist in Germany, Italy, France, Great Britain, Greece and Spain.

Germany

DO:

  • Be on time. Germans are extremely punctual and it is considered as rude to show up late, so make sure you’re on time!
  • Be formal. Address people with the formal ‘you’ (Sie), title and last name. Germans don’t usually address each other with their first name and the informal ‘du’, unless they personally know each other well. If the familiar ‘you’ (Du) is appropriate, they’ll let you know.
  • Respect the rules. Germans are world-renowned for their love of order and they certainly know how to follow rules – whether it’s on the street, waiting in line or having a meal in a restaurant. Do what the locals do J
  • Say ‘Guten Appetit’ before you dig into that Schnitzel and know your table manners. Always eat with knife and fork and keep your elbows off the table.

DON’T:

  • Wish someone a happy birthday before their actual birthday. This is major no-no, as it’s considered bad luck, so hold on to your birthday card until midnight if you’re invited to a celebration the night before.
  • Ask for tap water at a restaurant instead of ordering a mineral water. It is not common and you’re judged for being stingy.
  • Do not ever, under any circumstances, show the ‘Nazi Salute’, as it is not only extremely offensive, but also a criminal offence!
  • Stroll in the bike lane. As with all other rules, the bike lane (red lane on the footpath) is taken very seriously, and if you carelessly walk on the red side, you will probably get run over or yelled ad (or both!)

Italy

DO:

  • Insist repeatedly if you don’t want any more food once you are full. Italians pride themselves on a fantastic hospitality (especially when it comes to food) and might just keep feeding you!
  • Learn some basic Italian. Especially good morning, good evening, please, thank you, I would like to have, the formal forms of verbs, and the liberal use of a big smile! Italians appreciate the effort.
  • Dress appropriately. Italians take pride in their appearance, so try to dress to impress if you want to fit in with the locals. When entering any church in Italy, be sure that your shoulders, knees and midriff are covered. When entering St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, numerous inspectors will give you the once over, so don’t even try to get in wearing shorts or a tank top.
  • Expect to pay city taxes at hotels as well as a 10 – 15 % service charge to be added to your restaurant bill.

DON’T:

  • Be surprised to find businesses and shows closed for an hour or two between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Most Italians take a two-hour break to return home for lunch. Take this time to enjoy a leisurely lunch of your own.
  • Eat or use your phone when visiting churches, museums and galleries. Keep your voice down also.
  • Expect things to happen according to schedule. One of the first things any visitor to Italy will learn is that there’s time…and then there’s Italian time. Italian time is elastic – don’t be surprised or get stressed when your 4 p.m. Colosseum tour starts at 4:30.
  • Italians can be very critical of their country, but might not accept criticism from foreigners about topics like the political situation, religion, mafia or topics related to negative Italian stereotypes.

France

DO:

  • Speak French. While in most European countries you should make an effort, and learn some basic local lingo, in France it is almost essential. The French take pride in their language, and it is not polite to start a conversation in English, so you do need the basics here.
  • Be formal. Like in German, you must choose between the formal VOUS (Madame / Monsieur …) and informal TU (when you address someone with their first name). Don’t use TU for a person you don’t know well. Say ‘Bonjour, Madame’ when you walk into a shop or ‘Bonsoir, Monsieur’ to greet your waiter.
  • Order multiple courses. French culinary culture is a world of its own, and meals are meant to last several hours, so make it a full meal.
  • Dress well. Sophisticated women either wear skirts, dresses or lightweight long pants – no shorts. If you don’t want to stand out from the crowd, leave the shorts, ripped jeans and hoodie at home.

DON’T:

  • Complain about the wait at a café or restaurant. The social aspect of lingering over a coffee is the relaxing experience and part of the pleasure, so take your time.
  • Disturb someone in their lunch break. The time between 12pm and 2pm is sacred to the French, so respect this time.
  • Talk about wealth or ask someone about their political preferences. Stick to safer routes such as French culture, art, food, music, philosophy, architecture, and popular events. Just make sure you know what you are talking about.
  • Shake hands when you should be doing ‘la bise’ (holding each other loosely in the arms while lightly kissing each other’s cheek). Shaking hands (especially with a woman) in a casual context introduces distance.

Great Britain

DO

  • Wait in line. Wait patiently for your turn e.g. boarding a bus. It is usual to queue when required, and expected that you will take your correct turn and not push in front. ‘Queue jumping’ is no good
  • Be polite. It seems like common sense when visiting a different country, but the English in particular are extremely polite. Say ‘excuse me’ if someone is blocking your way, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and say ‘sorry’ if you accidentally bump into somebody. They will probably, too, even if it wasn’t their fault.
  • Smile J The British like to smile, so do smile, but don’t say, “Hi” to somebody you don’t know. They may feel embarrassed, because they don’t know you.

DON’T

  • Talk loudly in public. It’s considered uncouth and boorish to do so, especially at public spaces. Most British aren’t hard of hearing!
  • Expect an answer to ‘how do you do’. It is a greeting and not a question, so you shouldn’t answer or expect an answer.
  • Confuse Great Britain with other names for British regions. There are key differences between Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and England and the names are often used interchangeably. Look it up and get it right!

Greece

DO

  • Know your ‘yes’ and ‘no’. It can be a bit confusing, as the Greek word for “yes” is “nai”. And the word for “no” is “okhi”. Obviously, these can get confused with “no” and “okay”.
  • Get involved, have fun, meet people, start conversations, dance – all of it. In general, people in Greek enjoy a lust for life and will respond well if you make an effort to really engage.
  • Relax about clothing. Unless you go and see a monastery or church (No shorts!), you can dress casually – especially on the Greek islands.

DON’T

  • Thrust the palm of your hand in front of someone’s face. This gesture is called moutza and is considered very rude.
  • Discuss topics such as politics and economics and don’t mention anything about the Greek crisis. These can often be sensitive subjects.
  • Assume that the locals do not understand other languages. Not only the staff at hotels or other tourism operators but most people usually speak and understand English very well and know a bit of every European language!

Spain

DO

  • Wear the right things. Beachwear is for the beach, but in addition to that there are still several fashion rules that travellers to Spain must adhere to in order to avoid trouble. Some of the most important are never forget to dress accordingly when visiting a monastery, church, or sacred place, and by no means wear the wrong football shirt in the wrong city.
  • Check out local markets. Whether you’re visiting a big metropolis or a small pueblo tucked away in the countryside, local markets are particularly interesting in Spain.
  • Be patient. Unlike the Germans (as mentioned above), the Spanish have a very relaxed view of time.
  • Look after your valuables closely! Leave them in the hotel safe or wear a money belt to keep money really close to your body to avoid pickpocket attack.

DON’T

  • Call a Catalan Spanish. They are more than 7 million people who are so proud of their language, culture, and history, and who currently struggle for their independence. Nothing will offend them more.
  • Expect to eat early. Spain does everything late and eating is no exception. Lunchtime is usually between 13:00 – 15:30 and dinner is rarely served before 21:00.
  • Do not complain about smoking. Here in Australia, we have very strict rules about smoking in public places and in pubs. Smoking is widely accepted in Spain. Some Spanish say that people who complain about such things are “afraid of life”.
  • Expect vegetarian or vegan food. Vegetarians are in for a nasty ride in Spain. This is the country of Jamon and Chorizo, where the pork is king. They do have a great choice of vegetables available all year around, thanks to a huge agriculture industry, but they usually cook them as appetizers or side dishes. In major cities the choice is bigger but in any local tapas bar you will not find tofu.

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