Twitter is fairly prone to meltdowns, so it was no surprise a few weeks ago when the journo-saturated bin-fire of opinions went a little nuts over the fact that people in Sweden, generally, will not offer you dinner when you come to their house.
Piecing together how this became an online phenomenon (#SwedenGate) is a job for people more internet savvy than me – however, it had something to do with a comment on another opinion-bin-fire, Reddit, from someone who hadn't been fed by their Swedish friends, along with the appearance of a map of Europe that showed where house guests are most likely to be fed (with Nordic countries rated "very unlikely to give you food").
This is blowing people’s minds, so as an amateur historian and sociologist I’m going to try to explain this development/ cultural artifact. pic.twitter.com/vNF0MMpMFK— Incompetent Beneficiary of Nepotism (@WallySierk) May 29, 2022
Confused? Yeah, fair enough. Just trust me, it was a thing. And it also got me thinking about some of the other cultural quirks that travellers will encounter around the world – the good, the bad, and the incredibly offensive. Keep an eye out for these…
Swedes won't give you dinner
It's true: Swedes tend not to serve meals to visitors in their home. This is certainly not ubiquitous, as I've been served many fine dinners of meatballs and lingonberries and the like by my lovely Swedish pals. However, for reasons that are long-standing and complex, going back to the violent days of Vikings and the desire to not owe anyone anything, and an etiquette system that says hospitality should only be brought by those of higher status, thereby shaming the recipient into believing they are of lower status, you might go hungry if you arrive at a Swedish friend's house at meal time.
The Lebanese will give you dinner – no matter what
On the flipside, you will never go hungry in Lebanon. Regardless of what the time is and how well you know the people whose house you've dropped into, you will not, under any circumstances, be anything but overfed in Lebanon. Hospitality is an honour in this country, as well as many of its neighbours, and the chance to welcome guests and stuff them silly with every delicious morsel that Lebanese cuisines can boast is usually gleefully accepted. Take a tip: go easy on your first helping, because you will be expected to have at least a couple more.
Take your shoes off in South Korea
It's best to wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off – maybe leave the 10-hole Dr Martens at home – when you visit South Korea, because your hosts will consider it highly offensive if you tramp around their house in anything but your socks. This rule also goes for temples and other sacred spots, and plenty of traditional restaurants will also have you take off your footwear. This isn't much of an imposition once you get used to it, and it might even encourage you to buy some nicer socks.
Bring your business cards to Japan
Business cards are still important in Japan. Photo: iStock
There is a whole world of cultural considerations to be aware of when visiting Japan – though fortunately as a foreigner you will be cut a significant amount of slack if you don't obey them. Still, the Japanese famously bow when they meet people, rather than shake hands, they don't walk around while eating, they never tip (or expect tips), they're always punctual, they never talk on the phone in crowded areas, and these days they wear face masks ubiquitously. Another thing to remember is the custom of carrying and exchanging business cards: this will happen a lot in Japan, even if you aren't travelling on business. Cards should be given and received with two hands, and an appropriate amount of time dedicated to reading and storing others' cards.
Say "no" three times in Iran
As with Japan, Iran also has a complex etiquette system, this time called Taarof, that will be entirely opaque to first-time visitors. There's a whole lot to take in when it comes to Taarof; however, one of the most confusing for visitors is the expectation to say "no" three times to something that is offered as a form of politeness. For example, a restaurant owner might tell you that you don't have to pay for your meal. You'll insist on paying. He'll insist you don't have to. You'll insist two more times before he will relent and allow you to pay. Knowledge of this system can come as a shock to those of us (hi) who have travelled Iran unaware of Taarof and just accepted every offer of kindness at the first insistence.
Thais don't like your feet
The rule is simple, and should be easy to remember: in Thailand, it's rude to point the soles of your feet towards someone (same goes in plenty of Middle Eastern countries, too). No problem. Except, you probably don't realise how often you have the soles of your feet pointed at people. Any time you cross your legs. Any time you're sitting on the floor. That's a lot, and before long you've been offending people all over the place without even knowing it. Something to keep in mind next time you visit.
Don't step on toes in Mongolia
It's not ideal to step on people's toes in any culture – there's a reason it's a common idiom in English. However, in Mongolia it's a serious problem. In fact, if you don't immediately acknowledge your error by shaking hands with the person whose foot you've just trodden on, this could be seen as an act of real aggression. Even in crowded places, even when it obviously wasn't your fault, you should always apologise for standing on people's feet in Mongolia. (Unless you're trying to start a fight, in which case, have at it.)
Get naked in Germany
"Willkommen." Photo: iStock
If you visit a sauna in much of northern Europe, though in particular Germany and Austria, getting naked isn't a choice: it's a necessity. You will see signs at many saunas, pointedly printed in English, telling visitors that clothing is not optional – it's out. There's something about hygiene here, but mostly it's just cultural practice that requires observation. If you're uncomfortable getting nude in front of a multitude of strangers of all ages and genders, then it's best you bathe in your hotel room.
See also: Why I love getting naked overseas
What are the cultural quirks you've found most interesting or challenging around the world? Have you had any mishaps? Or refused to go along with any?