Customs and Etiquette: Navigating Social Norms in a New Culture

Setting your sights on life in a new country involves more than just packing your bags; it’s about immersing yourself in new cultures, traditions, and social norms. Every country has its own customs and etiquette, the vast majority of which is unwritten. From the big things, like not jumping your place in a queue, to the little things, like offering guests a cup of tea, these micro-moments are all part of a nationwide agreement of “the done thing”. 

While you can’t possibly prepare for every occasion, there are a few main areas where a little research will help you avoid any awkward faux pas on arrival. So, pay special attention to these areas, and be sure to find out what the expectation is in the country you’re moving to. 

Dining Etiquette

If you’re lucky, you’ll be welcomed into local homes and get to sample some authentic cuisine. Knowing what to do in dining settings will help you avoid any awkward side glances, so be sure to brush up. 

In some countries, it’s considered impolite to turn down food, as sharing food is a gesture of hospitality and respect. On the flip side, there are places where declining a second helping might be perceived as rude. Make sure you know what the expectations are so that you can act accordingly.

Communication Styles

Language might be a universal tool, but how we use it can vary dramatically across cultures. Whether you’re learning the language or hoping to muddle through, it’s worth becoming familiar with expectations of formality, language and tone, especially in the workplace. 

For example, countries like New Zealand and Australia are known for their directness and simplicity; it’s difficult to put a foot wrong! On the other hand, many countries, including Japan and France, expect you to use different words when addressing elders or superiors. 

Personal Space

Have you ever noticed how the distance between people seems to change as you travel the world? The “personal space bubble” is a unique concept related to how much personal space people need around them to feel comfortable. 

In bustling cities like London, the daily commute often nudges us closer to strangers than we might be used to. Meanwhile, a bit more breathing room is preferred in quieter corners of the world. It’s a silent agreement that governs our interactions, a subtle way of showing consideration for one another.

Cultural Sensitivity

Respecting local customs isn’t just a matter of politeness; it’s part of embracing the new country we’ve decided to call home. Generally, cultural etiquette is taught from childhood, and it’s so intrinsic that most adults won’t even be aware of the many unwritten rules they live by. 

In New Zealand, for instance, slipping off your shoes before entering someone’s home is fairly standard. A sign of respect rooted in the Maori culture, it’s largely been embraced by the nation. In Japan, bowing is more than just a greeting; it’s a gesture that conveys respect, gratitude, and humility. By adopting these micro-moments of cultural practice, you show your willingness to embrace your new culture with an open heart.

As you set foot on new shores and navigate the intricate web of customs and etiquette, remember that every cultural difference is an opportunity for connection. By embracing these traditions, you’re not just exploring a new way of life – you’re weaving yourself into the culture. 

Sarah Todhunter is a writer, mother-of-two and a dual citizen of New Zealand and the UK. As the sole proprietor of Fyxen Copywriters, she has navigated the ups and downs of moving a business and family across hemispheres, sharing the lessons she’s learned along the way. 

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