A faux pas, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a significant or embarrassing error or mistake; a socially awkward or improper act or remark.” If you’ve ever said, done, or worn something inappropriate, you’ve committed a faux pas at some time in your life.
When you’re at home or with your loved ones, this isn’t a big deal. You can apologize, laugh about it, and move on. When you’re in another country, your embarrassing blunder may not be as easy to brush off, especially if that blunder happened because of what you’re wearing.
Every culture is unique and has equally unique “rules” regarding clothing and dress. Instead of simply memorizing those rules, it’s important to learn more about how to properly honor them. That way, you’ll be fully prepared, culturally respectful, and fashionable wherever you go.
Improve Your Cultural Awareness
First and foremost, take some time to improve your cultural awareness. If you’re culturally aware, it means that you understand that other cultures are just as complex and nuanced as your own. You acknowledge that your cultures have influenced your beliefs and behaviors in different ways.
You don’t have to know what those specific distinctions are for every culture on earth — just that you likely have different ideas about how to dress. For instance, people in the United States tend to dress more casually than people in western Europe. You may be able to get away with jeans and your go-to hat at home, but you may need to throw on some slacks and a button-down shirt if you hop across the pond.
While you don’t need to follow these rules rigidly, there may be consequences for being culturally insensitive in your dress. At best, you’ll offend someone or embarrass yourself; at worst, you’ll break local laws regulating how people dress. The severity of these consequences depends heavily on where you go, but it’s better to improve your cultural awareness and decrease the chance that you’ll commit a faux pas in the first place.
Research the Culture of Your Destination
Research is one of the best ways you can improve your cultural awareness. And nowadays, you don’t even have to go abroad to learn about other cultures. Between guide books and travel blogs, information is abundant about seemingly every culture in the world. You can also ask people who have previously visited other places to tell you about their first-hand experiences.
If you’re preparing for a trip, do as much research as you can about your destination in advance. Find out how they dress so you know what kind of clothing to bring before you start packing your bags. Learn as much as you can about their customs, etiquette, communication style, and language.
You can’t learn all the nuances and intricacies of another culture just by reading about it, but this will give you a decent head start. When you set off on your trip, you’ll be better equipped to navigate and enjoy your destination.
Embrace the New Experience
Continue your research when you arrive at your destination. Observe the locals to see how they speak, dress, and behave. Try new foods and go to unique places. If you can, pick up a few new pieces of clothing or accessories and add them to your wardrobe (depending on what you buy, some things may be trendy enough to wear later, after you return home). Even a small change or addition to the way you dress can help you avoid any fashion missteps.
Simply put, don’t just learn about the culture, but do your best to experience it. Not only will this help you blend in with the locals, but it will also go a long way toward increasing your cultural awareness and enriching your trip.
Appreciate, Don’t Appropriate
Take care not to overstep your bounds. Though the lines are often blurry, there is a significant difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. According to Healthline, cultural appreciation “involves a desire for knowledge and deeper understanding of a culture,” while appropriation refers to the adoption of “specific aspects of a different culture without consent.”
It’s easy to step into the realm of appropriation when it comes to fashion. If you decide to wear local clothing or accessories, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you are wearing a culturally significant garment because it looks cool or it matches your aesthetic, that may count as appropriation. However, if you’re wearing it to learn about and connect with people from that culture, it’s likely appreciation — particularly if you’re encouraged to do so.
Appropriation and appreciation will take different forms in each culture. Some cultures may freely invite foreigners to enjoy many aspects of their culture; others may be more selective. You may commit an unforgivable faux pas if you appropriate certain cultural practices. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification or do additional research to ensure you’re enjoying the culture properly.
Don’t Be Offended if Locals Correct You
When you’re out and about and interacting with locals, you’re probably going to make a mistake at some point. To a certain degree, it’s inevitable. You’re in a new place where you don’t know the customs or etiquette. It’s easy to do something “wrong” without even knowing.
If (when) that happens, don’t get upset if a local corrects your mistake. Unless you do something incredibly offensive, they probably want to help you, not ridicule or disparage you. This could include remembering to remove a casual baseball hat indoors or throwing another layer over a tank top.
Try to welcome these corrections. Once you know that something was offensive or improper, you can avoid doing it again. If you’re traveling with other people, you can pass that information along so they can learn from your mistake.
Be Mindful of Your Words and Your Actions
Additionally, pay attention to what you say and how you say it. You can be dressed perfectly for the occasion and make a great first impression, but things will quickly go south if you say or do something offensive. As a visitor, you aren’t expected to know every word, phrase, or action that’s offensive in another culture. But your words and nonverbal cues can indicate rudeness, displeasure, and hostility, even when that isn’t your intent.
To avoid upsetting others, be mindful of what you say. Don’t use any idioms or phrases that a local wouldn’t understand. No matter what language you’re using, speak slowly and clearly to ensure others understand you. Similarly, make sure your tone, facial expressions, and body language don’t come across as rude. You can express displeasure or disagreement, as long as you’re respectful when you do so.
Try Your Best
Ultimately, you should strive to be a kind, courteous guest during your travels. Locals will be able to tell if you’re trying your best to be respectful, or if you’re just going through the motions. People will be far more forgiving of your mistakes if you’re trying your best to do things right.
Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Avoiding fashion faux pas is important, but it doesn’t need to be the sole focus of your travels. Just be mindful of cultural differences, be yourself, and make the most of your trip.