How to Become A Culturally Sensitive Tourist When Traveling to a New Country
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Being able to travel freely and much more conveniently than in the past is a major bonus of living in today’s world. People often travel to get out of their comfort zones, to have adventurous experiences, to meet others, and to learn about a culture other than their own. International trips are a great way to change your perspective, to challenge yourself, and to give you a sense of the differences between people and countries.
Being culturally sensitive and aware is essential when travelling. This means making an effort to recognise the differences between a new culture and your own and seeking to learn about and respect these differences, rather than expecting everyone to act like you. When you’re travelling to a new country, here are some key things to consider:
Learn before you leave
Before you head off on your adventure, do your research! While stepping into the unknown can be exciting, it can also be a good way to get yourself in trouble. Read about local customs and etiquette, and ensure that you’re familiar with important laws. As an example, if you’re visiting Vietnam during Tết (Lunar New Year), you’ll need to be aware of local customs and taboos: wearing black is seen as bad luck, as is visiting others during the holiday if you’ve recently lost a close family member.
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Melt into the culture
There’s little point in travel if you expect everybody to act just like they do in your own country. Adjust to the culture of the country you’re visiting, and keep in mind that you are the visitor. Don’t become frustrated if the customer service or etiquette isn’t what you’re used to or if transport doesn’t run on time; you’ll have a much better time if you’re able to adapt to new situations and simply enjoy the experience.
Dress like the locals
Some countries prefer more conservative styles of dress than others. If you’re planning on visiting churches, temples, mosques, or other places of worship, bear in mind that you probably won’t be allowed to enter in your favourite super-short shorts and singlet. Even if there’s not an outright ban on more revealing clothing, look at what the locals are wearing: male or female, you’ll stand out (and not in a good way) if you’re showing much more skin than everyone around you. At best, the locals will think you’re odd and may stare at you – at worst, you may face a fine or other punishment for disrespecting local customs.
Get chatty in the native language
Not everyone around the world knows English – and millions of people go their whole lifetimes just fine without ever learning English! To make life easier for yourself when you’re checking into accommodation, buying food, or just asking where the closest bathroom is, learn a few key phrases in the local language.
Knowing the basics will help your trip run as smoothly as possible, and will give you better reputation with the locals, too! If you’re in a rush and don’t have as much time as you’d like to learn, try carrying a pocket-sized language handbook with you, or write down and laminate the phrases you think you’ll need the most when you’re exploring the streets.
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Be a sensitive photographer
While travelling, it can be difficult not to take photos of everything you see. However, some people may prefer not to be in photos, or – as in some countries – it might even be offensive or taboo to take photos of strangers, so it’s best to ask permission before you snap.
Let go of your ideals and have fun
Have you ever seen a gift waiting all mysteriously wrapped up for you, and tried to guess what it was? After poking, shaking, and even squeezing it, perhaps you thought you identified exactly what it was – but when the day came to open your present, you found it to be completely different.
Travel can be the same. When you’ve waited for months – even years – to explore your dream destination, it’s easy to feel just a little disappointed when the people, scenery, and activities of your dreams don’t match exactly with what you imagined.
By letting go of your preconceived notions and expectations of how your city of arrival will look, how you’ll feel standing beside that landmark, and how you’ll be greeted by the locals, you’ll be able to fully enjoy your journey and soak in every amazing.
Look forward to your travels with wide eyes and an open mind, knowing that you’ll never quite figure out your destination before reaching it. Even if you’ve travelled to your destination twice or even twenty times before, don’t let even happy past experiences dictate your expectations. Try new restaurants, get off the beaten track (legally of course!), and talk to the person sitting next to you on the train. Never bore of asking new people about their stories.
We’re naturally wired to mentally process things – but our brains also have the amazing capacity to truly rest and listen, when you make up your mind to pause searching for answers for a moment. Listen to what the locals say when you ask them questions: how do they talk to older people, younger people? What topics do they dwell on, and what do they try to avoid? What activities bring them together? People open up when they realise that you’re not trying to change or correct or even talk over them.
Even when you’re not conversing, observe and take everything in. Being culturally sensitive and open to the unexpected will allow you to experience deeper bonds with the people and places you see.
Don’t make assumptions
If you’re unsure about something, especially when it comes to customs, don’t make assumptions. Ask a local if you can; people will generally be happy to help you out. Try your best to read body language, and be respectful of personal space, especially if you’re in a country that values it highly – what might constitute a decent amount of personal space in India is likely to be very different to that in Finland.
During any travel adventure, it’s important to keep an open mind. Before you set off, try to let go of any preconceived notions about the people in the country you’re visiting, as well as the country itself. You may just be surprised! If you’re respectful and interested in the local culture, you’re sure to have a great time, and to bring back great stories and memories from your trip.
This month's guest post was submitted by Johanna, a fun-loving and adventure-seeking freelance writer from New Zealand. Her ultimate dream is to spend the rest of her life seeing the world, and writing all about her travel experiences. Hosting a travel show comes a close second! Drop her a line anytime on Tumblr.