Being culturally sensitive when you travel takes a small amount of effort for the benefits you’ll reap. It’s true that just having a thoughtful and respectful attitude towards people you come across will go a long way, but there are some practical things you can do too.
Firstly, it’s human nature to want to be understood and appreciated. Things may be very different when you travel to how they’re done at home, but if you can embrace and appreciate change, then you’re on your way to becoming a culturally sensitive traveller and one less obnoxious tourist on the streets.
Research before you arrive
Before you arrive, research local customs and laws so you can avoid doing things that are illegal, or cultural no-no’s that could be offensive. For example, in Thailand it is illegal to speak negatively of the king, and locals will pause politely when the anthem is played, even if they are busy or in the middle of bargaining in the market. Some basic history and geography will also help you be aware of your surroundings and will help you understand why things are the way they are.
Tourists don’t generally need much language to get around. You can probably get by with pointing at pictures on a menu to order food and enjoy many local attractions language-free. But learning a few phrases will help you be polite as you mix with locals, so why not start with learning some basic greetings using an app like Duo-Lingo.
Be mindful of your holiday wardrobe and observe what the locals are mostly wearing (there will always be the odd one out). In some places it’s inappropriate to show your belly or thighs, so pack at outfit you’ll be comfortable in, especially for conservative places like temples or mosques.
Use etiquette for holy or sacred sites
Generally there will be signs or people to tell you what to do as you enter a sacred site. Whether it’s a place for honouring national achievements or a religious belief, using etiquette will show respect. For example, visiting a mosque may involve covering your head or taking off shoes. In a museum or church, showing respect may be as simple as speaking quietly.
Appreciate the food
Everyone needs to eat, and trying local cuisine is a good way to show appreciation for the culture and people you are visiting. Most cultures take pride in their traditional foods, so if you enjoy a meal, you could convey your appreciation to the chef or restaurant staff.
Be open to change
We’ve all seen loud and bumbling foreigners; thoughtless people who stand out and come across as rude or, at the very least, ignorant. Of course it’s normal to stand out as foreigners, but people who are not culturally sensitive stand out in bad ways. Locals will know if you have made an effort to learn about the place you’re visiting. Travelling is an opportunity to embrace new ways of doing things, so be aware of your own biases and soak in everything as a learner. Reserve judgement on cultural practises that are different to yours; they make sense to locals after all.
People back home can’t easily be put into categories, and this applies to every country. While stereotypes can help you understand some basic trends in a country, remember people are complex individuals who have depth and will take time to get to know.
Ask permission to take a photo
This might be obvious, but always ask permission before taking a photo of someone. How would you like someone putting a camera in your face if you’re not expecting it?
Apologise and get back out there
One last thing, if you make a mistake- which you will- say sorry and start again. You’ll make mistakes over and over again and people can be quite forgiving of foreigners who haven’t mastered the rules yet if they are seen to be making an effort.
These are just a few ways to avoid being the insensitive foreigner and get the most out of exploring new places and cultures. You’ll come away with a richer understanding of the culture and enjoy your interactions with locals- and they will be more likely to have a good impression of tourists and be happy to see you or others like you again. You’ll be paving the way for others and joining the movement for sustainable tourism.
I’m an educator and writer living abroad. I love languages, experiencing different cultures and going on adventures with my family.