How to Be Culturally Sensitive when Traveling Abroad
Travel is an extraordinary thing. But when you’re visiting a different country for the first time, there’s always a risk of offending the native population by failing to observe customs that are normal for them, or by not being aware of aspects of your own culture that might be considered rude or out of place. Few things are more embarrassing than disrupting someone’s way of life simply because you don’t know any better. Whenever you set off to see the world on a globe-spanning adventure, keep in mind the unique values and social climate of the culture you’re immersing yourself in, and think about how your behavior might be perceived by those around you.
Experiencing Different Cultures
Educate yourself on the place you’re visiting. Before you even step foot on a plane, conduct some rigorous research to help you prepare for your first encounter with a new country and its people. It will be worth finding out about your destination’s social structure, religious practices and attitude toward foreign travelers.Reading up on where you’re headed is a must, as it will offer valuable insight into daily life there and give you an idea of what to expect as an outsider.
- For a casual vacation to the South of France, you might only need to look into acceptable dinner attire, whereas a work trip to Japan or the Netherlands should be prefaced with some investigation into how leaders there ordinarily conduct formal business.
- Peruse travel blogs written by other visitors from around the world to get their take on a particular place.
Reflect on your own culture and behaviors. How is the culture you come similar to that of the place you’re traveling to? How is it different? Look at yourself through someone else’s eyes and take note of values and characteristics that may set you apart from those around you. You might, for example, identify as a feminist and be headed for a place where women traditionally occupy a marginalized role in society. Try not to let culture clashes influence your attitude. Make it your mission to present the best of yourself and where you're from to others while you’re away.
- Remember that you’ll be representing your home country while abroad, even on casual pleasure trips.
- Be especially mindful when traveling to places that have been embroiled in conflict with your place of origin.
Appreciate differences. The culture that you’ll be stepping into won’t be the same as your own, and that’s a good thing. Diversity is a quality that should be embraced. You might feel uncomfortable in a given cultural setting at first, but with an open mind you’ll start to see just how truly colorful and astounding the world can be.
- Let go of any stereotypes or generalizations about the place you’re visiting.
- Using a squatting toilet or being warned against sitting with your legs crossed in Turkey might catch you off guard, but gaining a deeper understanding of these types practices is probably the one of the reasons you’re traveling in the first place.
Conducting Yourself in Unfamiliar Surroundings
Try to blend in with those around you. As a traveler, you’ll be in someone else’s backyard, which means you have an unspoken obligation to abide by their way of life. With this in mind, your behavior should be modest and in keeping with that of your native counterparts. This means being polite, considerate and eager to make a good impression without trying to show off or make light of your new environment.
- Keep your voice at a respectable volume in public places. Avoid shouting, cursing or doing anything that might cause a scene.
- Know what the norms are when it comes to things like alcohol and tobacco use, photography and other forms expression.
Learn to speak the language. Though not a must, it can be extremely helpful to learn a few choice words and phrases in the local dialect. Not only is speaking another language a practical skill, as it will help you find your way around, it shows that you’re taking a genuine interest in the culture. This will allow you to forge more meaningful connections with the people you interact with.
- Memorize the names of important objects and places first, like the hotel, bathroom or cafe, to better orient yourself with the area.
- Bring along a phrasebook, or use an app like DuoLingo or Rosetta Stone to polish your handling of a foreign tongue.
- If nothing else, learn to say “please,” “thank you” and other basic courtesies. In many cultures, this is a sign of good faith that you’re making an effort.
Respect local laws and customs. Knowing how to act on foreign soil, and how not to act, can keep you from landing in hot water with the local people and authorities. For instance, it is customary in some parts of the world to greet someone with a bow or a kiss on the cheek rather than a handshake, or for couples to refrain from excessive displays of affection in public places. It’s important to abide by these regulations, even if you don’t understand or agree with them.
- Some more peculiar types of laws have come to be termed "tourist traps" because of their tendency to get unsuspecting travelers in trouble. Some examples of these include a chewing gum ban in Singapore and a law prohibiting motorists from stopping for pedestrians in Beijing.
- Take off your shoes before entering any private residence in Japan, Russia, Finland, Turkey or Switzerland.
Avoid offending the people around you. While you're carrying out your preliminary research, be sure to look up a list of "don'ts" for the area you'll be staying in. In the Middle East, India and some parts of Africa, for example, it's impolite to offer your left hand for a handshake due to that hand's association with unclean sanitary activities. Being informed will keep you from making an unfortunate faux pas.
- Be mindful not to touch anyone's head in countries where Buddhism is practiced or point the soles of your feet at anyone in Arabian cultures, as these are clear signs of disrespect.
- Innocent hand gestures like the thumbs up, peace sign or "A-OK" motion may have vulgar alternative meanings depending on where you go.
- If you happen to offend someone inadvertently, apologize sincerely and gently remind them that you didn't know any better.
Be prepared to tip. Familiarize yourself with the particular country's tipping customs when eating out or hitching a ride. In some parts of the world, including Australia, Costa Rica and most of Europe, tipping is neither required nor expected. Everywhere else it is often extended as a gesture of gratitude. Remember that members of other professions, like rickshaw drivers and hotel porters, survive on tips as well, not just waiters.
- When in doubt, leave a modest but customary tip of 15% of the bill's total at dining establishments. Always tip using the local currency, if you can.
- Tipping in Japan and Korea may be construed as an insult.
Watch how you dress. Most people are used to wearing whatever they please, but other parts of the world that are more conservative may have different standards for their inhabitants. Observe the style of dress of those around you and aim to approximate their appearance and avoid upsetting others with impolite displays. As a general rule, you should clad yourself modestly and avoid clothing with slogans or imagery that may be considered offensive.
- When visiting a temple, mosque or other place of worship, it's a good idea to dress simply and unostentatiously and be careful about wearing clothing that shows too much skin. Women should be prepared to cover their heads at Islamic religious sites.
- Many cultures, from the United Arab Emirates to Spain, have laws against public nudity and indecency. Save swimwear and other revealing outfits for the beaches.
Getting the Most Out of Your Travels
Interact with the locals. If you want to discover what makes a place special, make it a point to engage with those who call it home. Get out and live among the people rather than just passively observing them. Your taxi driver or tour guide can tell you things that no map can.
- Do your best to appear in control at all times. Making it obvious that you're a tourist in over your head can make you an easy target.
- Stop and ask someone when you need help or directions instead of relying on your mobile device.
- Make new friends and have them show you around during your stay for a more intimate and authentic experience of the culture.
Absorb everything you can. In many ways, traveling is the ultimate teacher. You have a rare chance to dive in headfirst and see so many new and astonishing things firsthand, and to learn about what makes life interesting in the process. Capture new sights on camera, or keep a travel journal to record the details of your adventures. Take advantage of this chance to enrich yourself.
- Take part in local cultural events like the Mardi Gras in French New Orleans, Germany's Oktoberfest or the Songkran Water Festival in Thailand.
- A stacked itinerary will not only keep you busy but allow you to get better acquainted with unique character of a given culture.
Get out of your comfort zone. Traveling is every bit as much about doing and feeling as it is witnessing. Go hang-gliding in the Alps or sign up for salsa lessons in Brazil. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and experience everything a culture has to offer, from its history and politics to its charming and unusual quirks.
- Write down a list of specific things you want to see and do, or challenge yourself to try one new thing every day.
- It’s normal to feel like you’re in over your head at first. This can be a very good thing, as it means you’re able to recognize and appreciate cultural disparities. If you wanted to be completely comfortable at all times, you could just as easily stay home.
Stay positive. There are many times when traveling can become a source of frustration, especially when you’re lost somewhere halfway around the world where no one speaks the same language. But nothing can cure a sour outlook like a smile. No matter what happens, keep a cool head and a positive attitude and be grateful for the opportunity to see more of the world.
- A happy, confident demeanor will make you more approachable, and make it less likely for scheming opportunists to try to take advantage of you.
- Inconveniences happen: you’ll get lost, run low on money or encounter a frustrating language barrier. What’s important is that you don’t let unforeseen mishaps keep you from falling in love with new places.
- For a more thorough primer on unfamiliar places and cultures, consult a reputable travel guide or take a look at the tourism info page on the website of the country you’re planning on visiting.
- You can often find clothing vendors in large cities selling the kinds of garments worn by the locals. This is a good place to start if you have doubts about how your usual look will be received.
- Be delicate when discussing matters like politics, religion and social issues with strangers. These things usually aren’t worth being pulled into an argument over.
- If you’re advised not to perform a certain action, apologize and make an effort not to do it again.
- Enjoy yourself, travel as often as you can and cherish the sense of peace and interconnectedness that comes with roaming the world.
- There may be aspects of foreign culture that you find distasteful; they might even be at odds with your strongly-held moral or religious sensibilities. Though it’s not always easy, remind yourself that things are simply done differently elsewhere, and do your best to follow these customs regardless of how your personal opinions about them.
- It’s usually considered rude to be loud and boisterous, or to act in any other reproachable way, no matter your location.