By Ilona Kauremszky

Q: I’d like to fit into the social culture when traveling and know there are probably many rules on proper behaviour to respect the local customs. I’m off to Malaysia this winter.

A: Knowing the lingua franca as it applies to language and social customs are two key ingredients that could very well make or break your vacation. For instance, imagine being in a cluttered street market trying to barter for a better deal. Thankfully these days many street vendors have the basics in English and will most often times surprise you when they try to sell their wares in English.

I recall visiting a souk in Tunisia where they speak French and Arabic. As I admired the gorgeous hand woven carpets, in no time, the shop keeper ambled over to me, had his floor staff unroll the masterpieces and awaited my response. I smiled and replied, ”Tres jolie” and the next thing, there was an invitation for tea along with dinner that same evening.

He was elated to hear I was from Canada. He flashed a Canadian postcard collection from his Canadian customers who sent him a note of thanks. It’s amazing what will await you.

In Malaysia, the moderate Muslim society is very warm and gracious. You will find that often times, if there is no where to spend the night, there will be cleverly placed traveller’s rest houses which are used as siesta spots in the kampung countryside.

Many times Malaysians might catch a foreigner slumbering there. Don’t be surprised if they invite you to spend the night at their home. A soft spoken lot, they are very polite and frown upon pointing with your index finger. Try the Malaysian method next time you need directions and use your thumb. Budget Travel Magazine just came out with a grab bag list of “most common faux pas” that travellers make when travelling abroad.

For the right things to do it’s strongly recommended to speak the language, make a good impression and mind your table manners. To learn four polite phrases in 12 languages, visit and click on “Cultural Etiquette” and “How to avoid being an arrogant traveler.”


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