With the advent of widespread commercial air travel, visiting new countries is easier than ever before. At the click of a few keys and a taxi to the airport, you can be on your way to the other side of the world in short order. However, with this increased accessibility of travel comes significant cultural sensitivity concerns. Without appropriate understanding, research and especially attention to the cultural context of the area to which they are travelling, the traveller risks unintentionally causing offence or harm to locals.
The following tips can help guide you towards behaviours that improve your cultural competence, regardless of the particular country to which you are travelling, reducing the likelihood of ending up in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation.
Know Before You Go
The most important step you should take before departure is to research the religious, cultural and social norms of the country to which you will be traveling, as well as the history and recent politics of the area.
The information you discover should inform your attitudes, behaviour and attire for the duration of your journey. For instance, many Muslim countries have a religious and social prohibition against the consumption of pork; in other countries, eating pork is entirely acceptable, but wearing any clothing in a camouflage pattern is illegal and highly frowned upon.
Not only will understanding the social, cultural and geopolitical context of the region improve your cultural competency and fluidity in the area, it also enhances the quality of your travels and your understanding of how the locals live.
If there is a civil war going on, this is unquestionably relevant to your personal safety, as well as the current cultural context and climate of the region. However, even smaller details, such as ongoing festivals and annual customs that take place when you are visiting, are important to know about as well.
Dress Appropriately for the Culture, Season and Setting
Dress appropriately for your travels. Consider what local people may find offensive. This may be radically different from home and the values to which you are accustomed.
Religious and cultural considerations are of considerable importance. Also, consider the weather and season, as well as the context of the activities you will be doing. While your tie dye shirt is appropriate for a warm day at the beach or a soccer game, it would be inappropriate for touring religious shrines and holy sites.
When in doubt, it is a good idea to dress how a local person of your age and gender would typically dress in a business casual setting in the country you are visiting.
Learn the Language
It is an important sign of respect and appreciation for the local culture to learn as much as possible of the local language and relevant dialects.
No effort to learn any of the local language shows arrogance, a lack of humility and a profound disinterest in the local culture that many people find off-putting.
Learning a language — or learning many languages at once — does not need to be unnecessarily difficult. Even the gesture of learning a few key words and phrases is demonstrative that you care, you are putting in an effort and gestures that you think local customs are important.
Even just the words “please,” “thank you,” “bathroom” and a few everyday phrases are enough to get you started communicating in a culturally relevant and appropriate manner. Accompanied by a few hand gestures and a genuine smile, this is the bare minimum that will get you by in a variety of common travel situations.
Expand Your Palate
Eating different foods is an exciting part of travel that mindful travellers embrace wholeheartedly.
No one wants to be that person who becomes squeamish at local delicacies, or who refuses even to attempt trying new treats when offered. Nor should you want to be the traveller who resorts to eating McDonald’s for every meal out of fear of trying something new.
Take a “try-anything-once” attitude, especially if you are a guest in someone’s home, and discover new tastes you enjoy across the world. Trying local foods that appeal to local tastes is a simple way to show your curiosity and appreciation for local flavors, along with respect for traditions in any area that you visit.
Be Mindful of Your Souvenirs and Their Implications
Almost every tourist and traveller loves a good souvenir. From miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower to shell necklaces sold on many beaches, there are endless opportunities to bring a little slice of your travels home with you.
Never take wild animals or their parts, plants or other pieces of the natural environment as a souvenir. Similarly, never purchase these items to bring home, either, as this only perpetuates an underground economy of natural resource exploitation.
Instead, choose one-of-a-kind items from local artisans to help support the local economy. For example, if you are visiting Moscow, buy etchings from an artist sketching in Red Square or visit the market at Izmailovsky Park for unique souvenirs, as well as the opportunity to talk with the artists. In the Old City in Jerusalem, choose handcrafted or hand-painted pieces, or seek out Druze cloth articles made by disabled people to raise funds for charity.
Know When It Is Appropriate to Take Photos
One situation where tourists have a reputation for behaving inappropriately is when it comes to photography.
In most countries, it is a bad idea to take photographs of the military, police or any military infrastructure. Similarly, many countries discourage taking photos of border crossings, bridges and other safety-sensitive civil infrastructure. This is especially true in countries where domestic or international terrorism is a concern.
Equally, it is important to practice excellent photographic etiquette when it comes to taking pictures of people. It is considered polite to ask permission before taking a photo of someone and not to take photographs unless express approval is received. Taking photos of people’s faces without their consent is considered exploitative by many and discourteous by virtually everyone.
Travel, at its best, offers an unparalleled opportunity for personal growth and development, as well as the chance for intercultural communication and learning.
Article by: Jordan Smith