My favorite part of traveling is experiencing new cultures and people. With that comes the challenges of being immersed in to a new place, language, and culture. Perhaps the worst travel faux pas anyone can make is to forget to be culturally sensitive and aware.
It is completely okay and understandable to not understand a culture drastically different from your own, but with a few key tips, you can be the best tourist you can be and ensure that you are being respectful of a culture while still enjoying everything that makes it different from your own.
It’s okay not to know everything. I promise you don’t need to pretend to be an expert in a new place, no matter how many guidebooks you have read. Allow everything to be new and don’t make assumptions about how things do or should work.
Language barriers are a standard part of traveling. Though they can be scary, especially when you are in a place that you aren’t familiar with, language barriers really aren’t as hard to bridge as you would think. With some patience, hand signals, and maybe some doodles, you can often find a way to communicate with most anyone. That being said, be respectful of other people’s languages. You don’t need to speak incredibly loud or incredibly slow. Just acknowledge the challenge and work within the best of your abilities.
Listen, listen, listen. In a new place, watch, listen, and learn from those around you. Put your desire to speak first and most aside and try to actively listen to those around you. Don’t think of the next thing you want to say. Don’t think of what you want for dinner later. Just listen and learn.
The more we are exposed to other cultures, the more we come to see the benefits and shortfalls of our own culture. Many times there will be rituals or cultural normalcies that we don’t necessarily agree with. However, to be the best tourist you can be, just accept that you are a stranger in this place and you should treat your experience with respect. In many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, there are temples that women are not supposed to visit while they are menstruating. While I don’t necessarily agree with this based on my own moral and cultural principles, I would never disrespect the rules of a new country just because I don’t understand them. Allow yourself to be the student and learn regardless of what you are learning.
Many countries have hand signs or mannerisms that may be normal here in the U.S., but are actually offensive in other countries. Take a moment to research your destination and ensure that you aren’t committing any severe faux pas. You don’t need to be well versed in every cultural normalcy, but just have a baseline so you can be as respectful as possible.
Watch before you do. It’s okay to sit back and watch what others do and follow suit. Don’t rush your experience, just watch and learn.