Traveling to a new place brings opportunities to engage with a different culture. Do you wear a headscarf everywhere or just when you visit mosques? Do you pack your two-piece swimsuit or stick with a wet suit? Is it okay to eat while you walk, or will you need to carve out time to sit down to eat? The answers to all these questions vary depending on where you travel to.
If you travel to Iran or Saudi Arabia, plan to wear a hijab wherever you go. In many other predominately Muslim countries, however, you aren’t required to wear a hijab in places other than mosques. In places like Barcelona, Spain, it is legal to wear bikinis on the beach but illegal to wear bikinis on the street. So if you go to the beach, make sure to bring a cover-up. In Japan, plan to sit down when you eat as it is considered impolite to walk around while eating. Wherever you travel, you should be informed about the cultural norms and local rules of conduct.
Choosing to be a culturally sensitive traveler is important for three reasons. First, prioritizing respect will enable you to be welcomed in spaces that you wouldn’t be otherwise. Ayman Jebara, a professor in Jerusalem, Israel, teaches Arabic to Christian American students. As part of his Arabic course, he helps his students learn how to respect the cultures they interact with in Jerusalem. He explained tourists’ level of respect impacts how welcome they are in a religious space. “Everyone needs to respect cultural and religious differences,” he said. “If not, you will be not welcome in these places.”
Second, your respect could help positively shape a person’s opinion of the United States. When I traveled to Egypt, I met shopkeepers who knew more about US current events than I did. They expressed their concerns about global policies that could affect them. However, the shopkeepers said meeting respectful American travelers helped them have a more nuanced perspective of Americans.
Third, it’s simply the right thing to do. Wherever you travel, you are surrounded by people who are allowing you to be a visitor in their country. Showing respect can be a great way to express gratitude.
If you are interested in traveling, you probably already want to show respect to the people, places, and cultures you visit. But how do you make sure you’re communicating your desire to be respectful? Here are seven tips on how you can become a culturally sensitive traveler.
7 Tips for Being a Culturally Sensitive Traveler
1. Research Before You Go
Wherever you travel, it is vital that you take time to research before entering a new cultural space. Research can come in many forms—talking with friends who have traveled or lived in the place you are going, finding credible online forums and sources, and watching documentaries on the places you will travel. Although you will be able to pick up some customs once you are there, it is important to begin your trip as prepared as you can be. Some reliable websites to begin your research are travel.state.gov, smartertravel.com, and worldpackers.com.
2. Be Willing to Observe
While research can help with determining what actions are appropriate and what actions are inappropriate, being willing to observe people will be the most helpful tool. For example, if you never find anything definitive about how people are expected to behave on the metro of a place you are traveling, rely on your own common sense and observation to determine what is most appropriate.
3. Adhere to Local Customs and Manners
Even mundane tasks that don’t seem to hold as much significance—such as eating, sleeping, or bathing—should be done respectfully. In Japan, it is considered inappropriate to wear shoes into an inn. When participating in Japanese baths, it is customary to wash before entering the bath. Knowing and adhering to these types of local customs and manners will help you to respect the cultures you interact with.
4. Ask for Permission to Take Photos of People
Another important consideration to make is to ask people before photographing them. It may feel uncomfortable to start a conversation with a stranger and ask if you can photograph them if you are a more introverted person. You may want to snap a photo and walk away. However, it is important to remember that the subject of your photo is a real person who deserves the right to offer or withhold consent to be photographed.
5. Respect the Etiquette for Visiting Cultural or Religious Sites
Understanding expectations for visiting cultural and religious sites often takes some planning and thinking ahead. Most mosques, churches, and synagogues differ in their requirements for appropriate dress, head coverings, and items you’re allowed to bring.
It is important to show respect to sacred items, places, or clothing in religious sites. For example, at the Dome of the Rock, there are certain rules to follow when posing in photos; having your feet pointed toward the Dome is considered inappropriate.
6. Dress According to Local Customs
Dressing according to local customs can help you immerse yourself into the culture and feel less obtrusive. It is important to note that sometimes donning local cultural apparel can be unintentionally offensive. The key is to separate the mundane from the sacred.
If you are traveling to India, you may see women wearing saris and bindis and want to join them. Bindis have religious significance and are sacred to those who wear them, so as a tourist you should consider not wearing them. Always research what clothing and accessory items are meant only for those participating in a certain religion or culture and which items are appropriate for anyone.
7. Participate in Spaces Where You Are Invited
As travelers, we may have an impulse to drink in the culture in every way we can—to dance, to pray, and to eat. This impulse can lead to unforgettable experiences, but it can also lead to uncomfortable moments for you and for those who live in the place you are visiting. Because of that, in most situations, it is best to figuratively wait on the sidelines until you are invited to participate in some aspect of the culture.
For example, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, there is often lively dancing and singing on Friday evenings to mark the beginning of the Sabbath. Rather than running into a circle and linking arms with the nearest person you see, you may want to stand close to the circle without inviting yourself in. Once someone makes eye contact with you and invites you (which often happens), join the circle, learn the dance, learn the song, and enjoy the experience.
If you’re not invited into a space, standing on the sidelines doesn’t mean you’re missing out on an experience. You’re in a place where you can observe and notice things you may not have if you were in the center of the experience. When I visited the Western Wall, I didn’t dance in the circle with the worshipers and some of my fellow American travelers. Instead, I stood to the side and witnessed something else that was beautiful in its own way.
As I was sitting and observing people, I noticed two women hugging and crying as they looked toward the wall. They looked like they had been waiting for this exact moment for a long time. I never would have observed that moment if I had been participating in the dancing or praying. Sometimes the best view is from the sidelines.
The Golden Rule
Traveling to experience the culture is a worthwhile part of any tourist’s journey. While these tips share a few dos and don’ts that may seem boring or hard to achieve, being a culturally sensitive traveler is an invaluable pursuit. When in doubt, rely on Ayman Jebara’s golden rule of traveling: “You need to respect the place and respect the people if you want people to respect you back.”
Take time to research the place you will travel to, be observant and respectful of customs, and avoid appropriating the cultures of the places you visit. This will not only help you show respect for the places you visit, but it will also enhance your experience traveling.