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Cultural sensitivity — let’s start with what is it. The definition, according to various smart travel organizations, is recognizing the differences in cultures without putting a negative or positive value on those differences. When traveling, it’s important to remember that your culture, norms, food dishes, or dress make you no better than the locals in your host city.
Remember, all travelers are likely to have a certain stereotype abroad. Often, this includes the idea that most tourists are loud, expect everyone to speak their language, are messy, and disrespectful. While we know this isn’t true for every traveler, many people across the world do still hold this view. If you’re a culturally competent traveler who values the increasing diversity in the world around you, it’s important to show the locals that you will go the extra step to not only recognize but respect their customs. While it’s not always easy (we get it — sometimes you’re frustrated with the pace of life or just want to hear some English), it’s definitely doable. Check out our tips on cultural sensitivity to ensure you’re a considerate traveler.
Research the Country You’re Going To
This is extremely important. If you’re looking to be a culturally aware and culturally sensitive traveler, you need to know about the place you’re going to visit. Learn what the country values, how the people behave and get a window into the local life, as well as the basics of how locals act, dress, eat and behave. This is the most basic aspect to understand and respect the different cultures you’ll encounter.
Your research doesn’t have to end just because you’ve entered the country. In fact, this is the best place to research the local culture and history. Head out to the history museums and cultural institutes, talk to locals, watch the news, do what you need to to stay informed on the current political and social climate.
Learn the Local Language
You don’t need to be fluent to learn the language of the place you’re planning to visit. Even just a few phrases will be good to know so the local community can see that you’re trying to integrate. In many places around the world, English is not widely spoken and assuming that everyone can and will understand you, can be seen as rude and conceited. By learning even just some basic phrases — “good afternoon”, “please” and “thank you”, “where is the bathroom?” “can you help me find….?” will go a long way in pleasing your host country. If you’re planning to be in town long-term, consider language classes to really learn how to communicate.
Hand signals are another aspect of communication you need to study up on. While in the US, a thumbs up is a sign of something cool, it could mean something else in another country. Be sure to read about local customs so you don’t end up offending your new friends by mistake.
Language is a window into another culture. By learning more of the language, you can have more meaningful interactions with those around you, giving you a more authentic time abroad.
While it’s great to celebrate individuality, try to dress like a local when traveling. For example, in a religious community where dressing modestly is standard, try to respect their culture and dress more conservatively yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to dress in a full niqab or burqa when traveling through Middle Eastern countries, but if women in the country you’re in tend to cover their hair, consider doing this as well, as a sign of respect.
This extends past just dress, however. If you’re in an area where most of the locals aren’t flashing around expensive jewelry or technology, you probably shouldn’t either. This is also a safety concern, as standing out could make you a target.
Try Local Dishes
Especially important when dining with locals, if you’re offered an authentic treat, don’t turn it down! This can be seen as extremely rude and offensive at worst, and simply annoying and slightly rude at best. Food is another important aspect of any culture, and if your hosts are sharing their best dishes with you, it’s only polite and respectful to give it a try.
While we’re on the topic of eating customs, be sure to pay attention when you’re out to eat. Remember not everyone in the world has the same habits and customs as you do — in some countries you use different utensils, in some you use no utensils, in some, you should eat with a specific hand or sit on the floor. The point is, you don’t know what the local custom is in a restaurant or in someone’s home, so be sure to be observant and ask questions if you need to.
Religious and Cultural Sights
It’s a given if you’re visiting a unique culture and country that you’ll likely end up visiting a religious or cultural heritage sight in town. While simply admiring the beauty and learning about the history, it’s important to know and keep in mind the religious or cultural practices for the specific landmark. In some places, like in many mosques, or in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, you won’t be allowed entry unless you follow the dress code. For Angkor Wat, this means clothing that covers shoulders and knees or covering your head if you’re a woman. The sites may also have specific rules on how to behave. This could mean no photography, observing silence, or bowing and demonstrating certain signals in specific places.
Remember, you’re a visitor to an important location in your host community and as an international traveler, you’re a representative for your country. Disrespecting such an area by not wearing the right clothing or not behaving according to the norm may come off as impolite, and could even taint the community’s views of everyone sharing your nationality.
Photographing Daily Life
This one’s fun, right? Who doesn’t love a good travel photo album? Between your pics of towering mountains and shimmering seas, you’ll likely stumble upon everyday life that’s so beautiful you just need to take a pic. Before you go crazy snapping away, ask! This goes across cultures — would you want someone taking a photograph of you walking your dog in your neighborhood?Before taking the photo, walk up and ask permission — you’d be surprised how many people welcome their culture and life to be represented, and it gives you an opportunity to interact with locals in a more intimate way. And, if the person says no, that’s fine! Sometimes they don’t want their daily life romanticized for the sake of a photograph (which is also fine, remember it’s everyone’s personal choice) or sometimes the setting may be inappropriate for a photo op.