Adjusting to a new culture

Understanding Local Customs and Social Etiquette In a New Country

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by Cyrus Kioko


So, you’ve landed in a new country, ready to explore and immerse yourself in a different culture. Exciting, right? Well, before you dive headfirst into this adventure, you’ll want to understand the local customs and social etiquette to ensure you navigate this new terrain smoothly. Trust me, it’ll save you from some awkward situations and help you make friends along the way.

Understanding local customs and social etiquette in a new country is all about deciphering the defining elements of your new cultural landscape. It’s an all-out learning experience centered around decoding the unwritten rules that govern daily life in your new community and living by them.

Of course, there’s much more to becoming culturally competent, and that’s what we’ll be geeking out about today. So grab those figurative nerd glasses and get ready to delve into the intricacies of cultural fluency.

The Best Approach to Learning the Local Customs and Social Etiquette In a New Country

Whenever I’m trying to learn about a new subject, I’ve always found that it helps to break down the learning process into two key questions: 

  • What information do I need to know about the subject?
  • How do I find that information?

I’m not sure there’s a specific name for this approach to learning, but one thing is for sure: it aligns with the broader concepts of effective learning and information gathering, which are valuable skills for both academic and real-world learning.

What I’m on about, you ask?

Well, that’s how I’d like you to approach learning cultural norms in your home away from home. Getting clued up on foreign customs and social etiquette is a full-on learning experience, and you need an approach that favors a self-directed learner like you.

To help you find answers to both questions, let’s tackle each separately in the next sections. 

Figuring Out Cultural Norms in a New Country: What You Need To Know

Culture is a complex and multifaceted concept encompassing a wide range of elements that shape how a group of people live, interact, and express themselves. Each group of people has unique elements that define their cultural norms.

When you’re trying to learn about any society’s local customs and social etiquette, you’re essentially looking to understand the unique elements of its people’s culture. That’s basically the answer to the “What do I need to know?” question in the context of today’s discussion.

So, what elements of your new cultural landscape do you need to know?

Well, there’s a pretty long list. Here it goes:

Nonverbal Communication 

This simply refers to the various ways we communicate without using words. It involves using various cues and signals – such as facial expressions, body language, gestures, eye contact, posture, tone of voice, and even silence – to convey thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

This form of communication can complement or sometimes even contradict spoken words because it adds depth and context to interpersonal interactions. In other words, what you’re doing with your body when you’re talking to someone can drastically change the message you end up passing along.

Why is this important when you’re trying to fit into a new culture?

For one, understanding your new community’s nonverbal cues gives you an extra set of conversational tools you can use to connect with locals on a deeper level. It can also help you avoid those cringe-worthy moments when you accidentally offend someone because you didn’t realize that a thumbs-up actually means something entirely different from what you’re accustomed to.

In short, folks, when you’re in a new place, take the time to learn the nonverbal language of the land. Take my word for it: it’ll make it easier to navigate the exciting maze of a foreign culture.


Dressing is a key component of cultural identity in pretty much every society. The way people dress in a particular society is often a reflection of its culture and moral values. Some societies are more conservative, while others are laid-back.

Clothing can also serve as an outward expression of one’s ethnicity or religious beliefs. For example, garments like the hijab, kippah, or sarong may indicate a person’s adherence to a particular faith or ethnic group.

Dressing according to your host country’s “dress code” is a great way to show respect and appreciation for its people’s culture, moral values, and religious beliefs. It can also help you avoid being unintentionally offensive with your dressing and make it easier to blend in and connect with the locals.

So take the time to find out what’s appropriate and adjust your wardrobe accordingly. Keep in mind different parts of the same country may have varying dress codes, and remember to keep your wardrobe in sync with the weather and occasion.

Table Manners

Table manners, or as some call it, dining etiquette, are essentially the unwritten rules of how you should handle yourself while eating in a social or formal setting. Every society has a different set of these, and they dictate everything from napkin usage to where you should keep your elbows during a meal.

Going out of your way to learn proper table manners when you’re in a new country is important for a couple of reasons:

  • It allows you to break bread with respect. Table manners are like a universal language of respect and politeness. When you know how to navigate the dining table, you’re showing appreciation for the local culture. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, I respect your traditions and want to be a polite guest.”
  • It opens doors to friendships. Dining is a social affair in many places, and knowing how to handle yourself at the table is a skill you need to master when trying to fit in and connect with the locals. So, if you’re having a hard time making friends abroad despite putting yourself in situations where you’re likely to socialize with like-minded individuals, you might want to take another look at your table manners; chances are they’re lagging behind your other social skills. This is likely the case if most of your interactions happen over a meal. 
  • It’s one of the best ways to avoid awkward moments. Ever been unsure if it’s okay to slurp your noodles or use your hands? Proper table manners help you avoid those awkward moments when you’re not sure what to do. Plus, you won’t stand out like a sore thumb, which makes everyone feel more comfortable.
  • It can help with professional networking. Networking is one of the best ways to find a job abroad, and chances are you’ll find yourself trying to put your best foot forward over a meal when you’re trying to build a professional network. Knowing your way around the table will help you navigate those business lunches, dinners, or formal events with confidence.

The above list is merely the tip of the iceberg; there are more reasons why learning table manners is crucial when trying to figure out a new culture than I can cover without making a whole post out of it. 


Learning the local greetings should also be part of your cultural literacy crash course. Mastering this often-overlooked element of social interactions can go a long way to help you minimize misunderstandings because what amounts to a proper, respectful way to greet someone in your new community may be different from what you’re used to.

For instance, while a handshake is the way to go in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and many other countries in the West, greeting the opposite sex this way may be frowned upon in conservative Islamic societies, depending on the relationship between the parties involved. Meanwhile, bowing is the standard greeting in Asian countries like South Korea and Japan.

And if that doesn’t paint a clear enough picture of how different greetings can be in various parts of the world, I’ll have you know that the Maori people in New Zealand often use a hongi, where they press their noses and foreheads together instead of shaking hands!

It’s not just the types of greetings that are different; the way you do it matters, too.

Take a handshake, for example. You probably know that using the left hand is generally discouraged unless you’ve got a valid reason not to use your right hand. And if you’ve got Muslim or Indian friends, you likely know that it’s considered disrespectful. But did you know that the nice, firm handshake associated with confidence and assertiveness in many Western cultures may be considered a sign of aggression in Japan?

Every society has its own set of rules for greetings, and mastering the norms in your new community should be high on your list of priorities. It’s not just about being respectful and dodging cultural faux pas; it’s also a way to connect with the locals and make your travel experience more fun and culturally rich.

Gift-Giving Customs

Gift-giving is a big deal in most cultures. Depending on the occasion and the culture, it can be a way of showing respect, expressing gratitude, celebrating special occasions, building professional relationships, and demonstrating hospitality. Gift-giving is also a key part of religious celebrations in many cultures.

In some cultures, gift-giving is like a carefully choreographed dance. It’s not just about picking out a present, grabbing some snazzy wrapping paper, and tossing on a ribbon. Oh no, my friend! This social dance can be a bit more complex than that, and if you step on the wrong foot, you might end up doing the gift-giving cha-cha with two left feet!

Think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill?

Let’s take a humorous trip around the world of gift-giving customs, where it’s not just about what’s inside the package but how you give it that matters:

  • Russia. Even numbers are considered bad luck in “Mother Russia.” So, if you’re planning to give flowers, make sure it’s an odd number. And when you hand them over, don’t expect a big smile; Russians tend to be reserved when receiving gifts.
  • Japan. The Japanese have taken the art of gift wrapping, known as “tsutsumi,” to a whole new level. They’ve turned it into a high-stakes competition to the extent that department stores are now offering professional wrapping services. So when in Japan, make sure your wrapping game is on point, or you might find yourself at a gift-wrapping dojo!
  • Italy. In Italy, black is associated with mourning and is considered unlucky. So when you’re wrapping up that gift for your new Italian friend, keep the colors vibrant and leave the black paper for Halloween.

That trip was shorter than Idris Elba’s cameo appearance on “Absolutely Fabulous,” but it does enough to show you how intricate gift-giving can be in some countries. Remember, it’s not the end of the world if you stumble on a gift-giving cultural faux pas (that’s the last time I’m using this phrase, I promise!).

Gender Roles

Ah, one of the hot topics in today’s society. Gender roles are essentially society’s unspoken expectations about how people should act based on their perceived gender. They are the reason some folks think it’s their job to mow the lawn, while others reckon they’re born to rule the kitchen.

Whether you’re in a country where gender roles are traditional or progressive, taking the time to get the hang of them will add an extra layer of cultural fluency to your travel adventures. You’ll be better equipped to navigate social situations, whether it’s in the workplace, at a dinner party, or a hangout with your newfound friends.

Religious Practices

Religion isn’t just about who you pray (or don’t pray) to; it’s deeply woven into the fabric of culture and daily living in most societies. That’s why cultural values and norms often reflect or are influenced by the dominant religion or religious beliefs in pretty much every community.

Whether you’re off to explore a land where temples dot the landscape, mosques call out the call to prayer, or churches chime their bells, remember that religion is an integral part of culture that you shouldn’t ignore when you’re trying to understand the local customs and social etiquette in your home-away-from-home. Embrace and respect it, and watch your journey become all the more enriching and fulfilling.

Personal Space

Personal space boundaries vary from culture to culture. In some parts of the world, people stand closer during conversations, while in others, they prefer more breathing space.

Take, for instance, places like Italy or Latin America – they’re all about the friendly closeness. Flip the globe, and you’ll find spots like Japan or the United Kingdom where they appreciate a bit more elbow room during conversations.

Breaking the rules of personal space can make people uncomfortable and may be considered offensive in some cultures. That’s why you’ll want to pay attention to what’s considered the norm in this regard when you’re familiarizing yourself with the local customs and social etiquette in a new country.

Where to Find Information for Your Culture Crash Course

Now that you’ve got a checklist of what to dive into for your crash course on cultural norms, let’s talk about how and where to dig up all that juicy info.

Get Active Online

Let’s start with the one place we always turn to when trying to figure out everyday problems: good old internet. Look up travel blogs, forums, and guidebooks. There are plenty of these for pretty much every location, and they’re often packed with information that can give you a feel for what’s considered polite and what’s a no-no in your destination.

Remember to get specific when you’re digging into these online resources: two communities in the same country can have entirely different cultural norms.

Don’t know where to begin your search?

I’ve got a gem for you: The Culture Crossing Guide. This well-put-together website is like a cultural compass, your ultimate Sherpa through the world of customs and etiquette. Simply plug in the country you’re headed to and select the language you’re most comfortable with, and you’ll get a table with links to information on that country’s culture.

Cultural Atlas is pretty good, too. I particularly like that it provides the dos and don’ts of every culture you look up. Most similar websites don’t offer this option, and the few that do aren’t as detailed and accurate as the Cultural Atlas.

If you choose to use different websites, make sure the info they provide is accurate. A quick way to check the accuracy of any website is to look up your own culture and cross-check the results with your lived experience. Combine this neat trick with checking reviews, and you’ll filter out all the hoax sites.  

Observe and Learn From the Locals

Once you’ve arrived and settled in, put your detective hat on. People-watch and observe how locals interact. Pay attention to how they greet each other, use body language, and show respect. You don’t need to become a spy, but being observant can help you blend in and understand the social fabric better.

Don’t just observe; ask questions whenever you get a chance. Locals are often happy to share their culture with curious visitors. As long as you’re open to new experiences and willing to learn, your genuine interest in their customs and etiquette will be highly appreciated. 

Remember, making mistakes is a part of the learning process, and most people will be forgiving if they see that you’re making an effort to respect their customs.

Join a Culture Exchange Program

A culture exchange program is exactly what it sounds like: an initiative that brings together folks from different places to “exchange” cultural knowledge. This way it works is pretty simple: you teach another person your culture, and they do the same for you.

These initiatives are a great opportunity to dive into a new culture, hang out with locals, and show off your own traditions. They usually throw in stuff like learning the local lingo, checking out cultural workshops, homestays, and community engagement to get participants to understand each other better, make global friendships, and become cultural whizzes.

The best thing about this kind of cultural learning experience is that it throws you right into the thick of things. You’re not just reading about customs; you’re living them. It’s like learning to swim by jumping into the deep end – you’ll quickly get the hang of it.

Take a Course

This is a great option if you prefer a structured learning experience. In most countries, you’ll find courses and programs designed to get foreigners up to speed with the local culture. 

These courses are usually packed with valuable insights into the local customs, traditions, and social etiquette. They’re often named “Cultural Awareness Courses” or something along those lines, so be sure to mention that when trying to find a place that offers one. You’ll want to mention the specific culture/country, too, because chances are there are similar courses for various demographics and locations. 

Cyrus Kioko
Cyrus is a seasoned blog post writer with over five years of experience in crafting and editing articles spanning technology, lifestyle, and finance niches. Fueled by an authentic passion to contribute valuable insights, he has invested thousands of Netflix-less hours in research for this site. Each piece he writes is aimed at empowering readers to make well-informed, real-life decisions. Holding a degree in commerce and armed with ample copywriting courses, he brings both expertise and a touch of nerdy flair to the table.
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