As a seasoned traveler, I am an advocate of responsible travel — the kind of travel that respects cultural traditions and fosters greater understanding between peoples. Responsible travel is no accident but rather the result of intentional efforts to learn and practice country-specific cultural etiquette. While we can learn many of these cultural considerations from books and other sources, the best classroom is the world itself. St. Augustine said, “The world is a book. He who does not travel reads only a single page.” However, those who venture beyond familiar borders have the opportunity to read another page, broaden their cultural vocabulary, become better informed, and see the world through new eyes.
Travel affects our understanding and perspective. One of the best things about travel is the insight that comes only from being on site. While we will not always get it right, we should make every effort to make certain that as we travel we avoid offensive behavior, respect and honor differences, and treat others with dignity. The following are a few guidelines for improving your cultural etiquette quotient as you travel.
Do your homework. | Before you leave the country, take time to learn all that you can about the people who live in the places where you will travel. There is no shortage of helpful resources available — everything from country guides to web-based instruction to smart phone apps that cover a range of topics from greeting to eating to taking photos and more. I like to download country guides to my Kindle device (that I can also access on my iPhone). This makes it easy to review them en route to my destination and during my stay.
Be observant. | When you arrive at your destination, consider it your new classroom. This is where learning is fun. Observe and learn from locals. Take note of how they greet one another, how they treat personal space, what and how they eat, how men and women interact, how they treat their children, and more. What you see will prompt you to ask lots of questions.
Ask questions. | Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I have found that nationals appreciate sincere questions from guests to their country. “Why do you greet one another in this particular way?” or “What is the meaning of this gesture?” or whatever question you may have. Ask it. Asking questions gives nationals an opportunity to teach us and to help us better understand what we can do to foster meaningful interaction and deeper understanding during our stay.
Watch your tongue. | Remember that you are a guest and should therefore refrain from saying anything disparaging about the way others live or how they do things. A helpful rule of thumb is to speak as though everyone around you understands what you are saying. So, don’t say anything that might make others feel that you are being critical of their foods, roads, toilets, homes, or way of life.
Resist the urge to be a hero. | As you travel you will see all sorts of things that will make you want to rip off your shirt to reveal that big letter “S” on your super hero outfit. Resist the urge and remember that Superman and Stupid both begin with the letter “S”. You can actually do more harm than good by emotionally stuffing money into a need or making promises of future help. If you want to do something to help, consult a local ministry or organization that can take your funds and apply them to the need in responsible ways after you leave.
Keep your ideas to yourself. | Remember that you are a guest, not a consultant. So, resist the temptation to tell nationals how to do things better or how they should drive or reform their traffic laws, etc. Our ideas may sound great to us, but may be totally unrealistic and unsustainable in the geographical context you’re in. Instead, rest in the assurance that those you are visiting have somehow managed to survive from day-to-day and to keep things running without your advice.
Receive their smell. | Travel to some places will introduce you to the world of unusual and unpleasant human smells — villainous odors forged in the furnace of human filth that you will find indescribably repulsive. I learned a great lesson from friends who lived among the Ayizo people in Benin, West Africa. They taught me that among the Ayizo, the most intimate way to say that you love someone is “I receive your smell.” Travel is about learning to receive other people’s smell.
Swallow anyway. | Travel will inevitably introduce you to a variety of unusual foods and beverages. Over the years I have eaten everything from dog meat to intestine scrapings to stuff that I could not identify. I have moistened my lips with everything from delicious Ukrainian compote to fermented Mongolian mare’s milk, a drink that laughs in the face of Imodium. I have swallowed stuff that I thought would kill me. Looking back on it all, I’m glad I did because, in many cases, doing so nurtured a meaningful connection with my hosts.
Be gracious. | Perhaps the most important thing to remember when it comes to cultural etiquette is to be gracious and to behave as you would want for guests to your own home to behave. Travelers often have an uphill climb because of the cultural faux pas of those who came before them. However, by demonstrating gracious behavior that respects and honors differences and treats people with dignity, we can help to foster greater understanding between cultures and make things easier for those who come after us.