“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” means that when visiting a foreign land, follow the customs of those who live in it.
But is it a stagnated and inflexible rule that should be followed regardless?
No. I do not think so.
I’ve been living in Korea for about five months– and my supervisor has used that term on me at least twice….nothing too serious. It was Christmas Eve and I was working. My friendly supervisor asked me what my plans were.
When I told him I was going to spend it with my family instead of dating, he told me: “You should go on a date. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
It was nothing offensive but it really got me thinking (and here I am): Do I have to do what the Romans do in Rome?
Yes, but not all the time.
Yes: If it concerns respecting the culture.
You should definitely follow the customs of a foreign land if it’s a matter of respecting its law and important aspects of culture.
When it’s commendable
Do what the Romans do if they’re doing something darn right. One of the reasons why I wanted to travel was to expose myself to different cultures and learn from both the right and wrong.
- While I was in New Zealand, I loved how friendly and kind people were.
- In Korea, guys would help tourists carry their luggage up the stairs and leave: they do it without the need of receiving appreciation or compliments.
After spending time in these countries, I tried my best to adopt some of their cultures that I thought were great.
I couldn’t emphasize this enough. Language is the most unique part of a culture– it is a form of communication and it somehow forges a sense of unity. It distinguishes a part of one’s identity. It probably is important it is to learn the language of a place, especially if you’re staying there for a long time.
If you’ve the intentions of living in a foreign land for sometime, we’ve to understand that: its people are not supposed to bend their most essential cultures for you.
While living in big cities can be easier, where many people speak in English, they really do appreciate it when you make an attempt to speak their language. So if you can, do try it.
There are usually 2 types of laws: laws that most people have broken and laws that should never be broken.
The former is up to your own discretion while the latter are laws that should never be broken.
For example, if everyone in the city are crazy drivers, it’s unnecessary for you to be one. ie. Laws that people don’t abide to but you choose to.
On the other hand, laws such as murder, theft, etc. should never be broken (duh).
So please, follow the laws and the culture of the foreign land you’re going to.
Anything that causes major disruption and discomfort
This is actually the most annoying trait that foreigners may adopt without any realization. While it may not seem like a big deal to foreigners themselves, it shows complacency and complete disrespect for the culture.
Unfortunately, this is the reason why there are so many negative stereotypes about certain foreigners (That should not be mentioned).
The truth is, these are things that can easily be picked up through simple observation:
- Are commuters mostly quiet on public transportation? Then I should also lower my volume and not behave like a monkey.
- The streets here are really clean although there’s a lack of bins. Then I should also keep my rubbish in my pocket and throw it later.
- People don’t randomly shit on the streets here (who does that????). Then I should hold it in and look for an appropriate place to defecate.
No: If it goes against your principles (and it isn’t offensive to not do it)
In every country, unfortunately, there will definitely be facets of its culture that may go against your morals and principles.
Let’s take food, for example.
Most countries have their own version of ‘exotic’ food.
In Australia, there are emu, ostrich and crocodile jerkys.
In UK, there are black puddings made of pork fat.
In Korea, Singapore and many Asian cultures, blood sausages and the intake of animal intestines are considered normal.
In Southeast Asia and possibly many other cultures, snacking on insects is considered nutritious and perfectly normal.
The list goes on.
To me, eating insects, dogs or anything too exotic are effing gross. But my unwillingness to eat them isn’t considered offensive.
Kindness and Courtesy
Never be less kind or courteous as you already are just to fit in.
If you don’t like pushing people in crowded places, don’t do it.
If you think holding the door for a lady with kids is the right thing to do, never stop.
If you absolutely hate spitting but everyone else does it, you have your rights to hold your bodily fluids in.
While Korea has many commendable customs, it is absolutely normal for people to do everything of the above…
- People shove each other around during peak hours,
- I had a nose bleed once because I thought the guy in front was going to hold the door for me….but it swung back in my face. lol
- Spitting….everywhere (because of the dry weather and smoking).
While it is a norm that many foreigners have pointed out and recommended getting used to (which I eventually did), I hated doing them. However, I also understood that I should never hold offense to those behaviors and I got less angry eventually.
Interestingly enough, many locals begin to think the same and things seemed to get better recently.
I guess it’s important to understand that….
Acceptance and assimilation works most of the time, but not all the time.
When in Rome, you should do as the Romans do, but never bend your beliefs.
No one is forever right.
Everyone, everywhere has room to learn and improve from each other.
And that’s the true beauty of globalization.