Leave Your Shoes at the Door
You are traveling in someone else's home
After days of sticky heat, my roommate and I slept comfortably as the standing fan methodically clicked along in its back-and-forth rotation, pushing cool air against my forehead. We had found the fan tucked into a corner of our room, a miracle in the Paris summer swelter.
As the air abruptly shut off, I opened my eyes to see our host mom standing over the fan. Speaking in French, she whispered that leaving the fan on all night was wasteful. With a hurried apology, I prepared for another hot night, glad for the darkness to hide the red burn creeping up to my cheeks from the embarrassed twinge in my stomach.
As a young study abroad student, I was often ignorant of my host family’s cultural preferences. I viewed my surroundings from my American perspective. While my cultural missteps only led to humorous or mildly embarrassing moments of mismatched expectations, they could have created a larger confrontation—confrontation that could be easily avoided if I had taken the time to learn the “house rules” of French culture.
As tourists, we often carry a bad reputation along with our luggage because we don’t blend in with the cultures we visit. We bring our native perspectives, habits, and attitudes with us, and they often clash uncomfortably with the expectations of the people whose homes we are sightseeing in. We are not expected to be perfect cultural chameleons, but there are three things we can each do to respectfully travel in someone else’s home.
Learn the language—and the body language.
Language is a deeply rooted part of every culture. Any sincere effort to learn someone else’s language shows that you respect them enough to want to listen, connect, and understand.
Study up on cultural taboos.
Every culture varies in what they find disrespectful, inappropriate, or uncomfortable. Researching before you travel will help you avoid asking an inappropriate question or misunderstanding a cultural norm.
Be an observer, unless invited to participate.
Learning from other cultures is enriching and exciting. But as tourists, we have to be respectful of situations where it would be uncomfortable or inappropriate for us to take part in native community rituals, customs, and mannerisms. We should not impose on community life unless we are invited to participate.
As we travel the world and appreciate beautiful places, we can all make an effort to adapt to the cultures we visit. We will create deeper connections with the communities we travel to, and we will alleviate the stresses of disruptive tourists on native life. By symbolically leaving our shoes at the door, we signal our respect for the people who call that place home.