How to Be Respectful When Traveling
Remember that time your roommate’s friend from college stayed over for a couple of weeks and ate all the peanut butter, left muddy footprints on the floor, and never changed the toilet paper? That’s called being a bad guest.
It’s even worse when instead of leaving footprints on the floor, you end up leaving them all over someone else’s personal and cultural identity. Don’t be a bad guest when traveling to another city, state, or country. Don’t be “that guy” (or gal).
Do Your Research Beforehand
The key to being respectful when traveling anywhere, whether overseas, is always preparation. Even if you, like me, enjoy being spontaneus.
Every region in the world has its own unique rules of etiquette and traditions, and they are very important for them. If you really care about being a good guest, take some time to read up on your destination’s customs—like removing shoes when entering someone’s home in Japan—and taboos—like blowing your nose in public in France.
And remember, it’s not just foreign countries that have their own dos and don’ts. Even some U.S. cities have certain rules you should never, ever break. Turn your nose up at the humble cheesesteak sandwich and you can forget about looking at Philadelphia houses for sale; you’ll be run out of town on a rail.
Learn the Language (Even a Little Goes A Long Way!)
Easier said than done, I know. But you should try to at least learn a few basic words and phrases to make communication smoother. Not all languages are spoken, by the way.
Be mindful of physical gestures and how other cultures might interpret them in different ways. For instance, the familiar two-finger peace sign we know in America is the equivalent to giving someone the middle finger in the U.K. Oppps!
If you want to learn some funny Italian Gestures, well I’m Italian and I wrote a pretty exhaustive article about it. Enjoy 🙂
Of course, some languages you need to learn are still technically English, modified with regional slang words and implied meanings. Remember that if you ever visit the Deep South and think about saying “Bless your heart” to anyone. You might think you’re wishing them well, but the truth is that you’re in some very, very deep trouble.
But the real satisfaction will come when you will see how smiley and kind people will become with you in, let’s say, Thailand when with your hands together you bow a little, thanking them with a “Kap Khun krap/ka“! Or greet your new Thai friend with ” Sawadee krap/ka:” … trust me, it’s priceless 🙂
Don’t Make Fun/Silly Jokes/ Inappropriate Selfies
There’s a difference between having fun and making fun. Traveling can be all about the former, but should never be about the latter. Even if you don’t think you’re being irreverent doesn’t mean you aren’t. Visiting the Vatican in Italy or the sprawling, multi-tiered cemeteries of Japan can be fascinating, but these places have huge historic and emotional significance for the locals.
They’re more than just cool selfie opportunities. Not to mention the totally outrageous behavior I witnessed when visiting Aushwitz in 2015.
Sometimes the things that a region’s inhabitants revere most aren’t what you’d expect, however. Talking smack about Mickey Mouse in Orlando will get you more cheers than jeers from Florida natives who have to deal with the constant stream of Disney-obsessed tourists. On the other hand, treating any of the state’s college football teams as anything less than divine beings won’t end well.
Beware of Cultural /Religious Rules (And Respect Them)
I have traveled the world non stop for around 8 years, spacing from Southeast Asia, to Mexico, Indonesia, strictly Muslim countries and more relaxed environments. What I’ve learned during these years is to always respect the local religions and rules.
I give you some examples to show you how even someone like me, always truing to be respectful, might inadvertently broken those rules and offended the locals.
It’s been so mortifying for me that I’m now extra careful when it comes to approach certain social situations.
- NOT WEARING A VEIL IN A MOSQUE (PROPERLY): I still remember this one like it were yesterday. I was visiting Turkey and we were inspecting a semi-abandoned and isolated mosque. It was my very first time and I was handed a veil to cover my head at the entrance. I obviously place it over my hair but a few minutes later a rather agitated man asked me to leave. I had no idea why he was apparently upset, and my guide explained that I had to make a knot to keep it in place.
- BE CAREFUL WHEN HANDLING MONEY IN THAILAND: I was living in a remote village in Thailand and after a few months, I was almost considered one of them. Such nice and kind people greeted me like they had known me forever. It was 2014 and back then their beloved King was still alive and they loved him unconditionally. Obviously, his face was all over the Thai money. One day, tired after a day teaching ballet in the local school, I sit on a table. My gracious Thai friends looked at me in horror because I didn’t realize that table was a display with the Thai money AND more importantly … The King!
I could go on and on with these “little” Incidents. For us they might be insignificant but for the locals can be extremely rude so a little research and attention toward their culture will grant you a lot of respect from the locals.