As an American who travels often, I sometimes hear non-Americans complain about US citizens’ and our perceived lack of respect when we visit other countries. Granted, not all Americans act like fools when we visit foreign countries but the US (and some other countries) have a bad reputation when it comes to cultural awareness and sensitivity.
Cultural awareness is vital to a fulfilling experience while traveling and helps us improve our ability to communicate with those outside of our own culture. Basically, it’s the capacity to stand back from our own perspectives and become aware of other cultural values, beliefs, and perceptions. In other words, being culturally aware means putting ourselves in the shoes of others in order to understand them and, consequently, increasing our own self-awareness.
How do we increase our own self-awareness through cultural sensitivity?
When we prepare to go abroad, we often have a checklist of items we need to accomplish before we leave. Packing our bags, currency exchange, airline tickets, transfers, and passports are all things we ensure are taken care of. One other thing we should all add to our checklist is understanding and learning the local ground rules of the place/s we are visiting. When we do just a little investigating, we will quickly learn that some of the things we consider normal in the US are not normal in our destination. In fact, some of our behaviors may be downright taboo and frowned upon. And this is how we learn more about our own culture. Knowing what is acceptable in the US but not acceptable in other places can create a sense of gratitude for our own home situations.
Why be culturally sensitive?
Think about it for a minute and it shouldn’t be too difficult to grasp. When tourists come to the US, or wherever you live, we expect them to have a basic understanding of the way things work. Even though we have no official language in the US, we’d expect they’d be able to speak a few phrases in English out of respect. It really comes down to respect. That’s exactly why it is important to be culturally aware. It’s just common courtesy.
But above courtesy, cultural sensitivity helps us understand the way others live their lives. Being culturally aware definitely helps destroy stereotypes not to mention it really goes far when it comes to developing new friendships. Learning about others and developing relationships are a major part of travel. It’s something money cannot buy and it happens much easier for those who are culturally aware.
It definitely can seem a bit overwhelming. It takes practice but eventually being culturally sensitive becomes second nature. Whenever I am about to go somewhere new, I look up things I need to know. It takes maybe an hour each time and we don’t need to know everything. In fact, it’s not really possible to know all the cultural intricacies of every place we visit. But it is important to know what may cause offense and what may be illegal.
As gay travelers, my husband and I try to be aware of our destination’s acceptance of LGBT people. There are 75 countries where it is illegal to be gay. That’s important for us to know. So though it may be daunting, it is in our best interest to understand the norms of the place we are visiting. Our safety depends on it and we certainly are not going to allow anything to keep us from exploring world. It’s just a matter of realizing we are not in our home countries and with that may come prohibitions on certain types of behavior.
So…what should I look for?
There are a plethora of things to consider when visiting other countries. Is the country LGBT friendly? How does the country treat women? How do people interact with one another? Like I said, each country has different sets of norms and acceptable behavior. Try to consider these categories before heading out to explore a new place.
There are different eating etiquette rules for every place you visit. In some countries you are expected to eat all the food on your plate while in others you should leave some on your plate to compliment your host. In some countries you shouldn’t eat with your left hand and the list goes on. Manners are everything but they change from country to country.
Restrictions on dress usually effect women more than men. It’s unfortunate but there is a double standard for women. If you are traveling in most Western nations, you don’t have much to worry about. We have a free mentality about clothing. But when traveling elsewhere, it’s important to take note of how those around you dress and follow suit. In general, dress modestly so as not to cause offense. It is also important to realize many temples and other religious buildings might not allow you to enter wearing shorts. Just know local customs and you will be fine.
In some Western countries and many non-Western countries, hospitality is taken very serious. If you are offered food, shelter, or assistance and you refuse then you might cause offense. The same goes for gifts. Keep in mind that if you express admiration for somethings, the person may offer it to you as a gift. If you accept then you may need to give the person a gift in return. Hospitality norms vary from location to location…it’s best to read up before you leave.
PDA, or public displays of affection, can either be an issue or not. Depending on the level of PDA, it may cause offense. For instance, in the US, people tend to feel awkward and even annoyed when a couple is making out in public. In other countries, even a peck on the cheek may cause offense or be perceived as abnormal. You don’t want to seem rude so avoid PDA when traveling unless you are certain it is not considered rude by local people. If you are an LGBT traveler, this can be especially important where safety is concerned. In some places, you may be jailed or face a beating.
Watch your body language. Certain types of body language can have different meanings depending on your destination. It’s important to be aware of these gesture to avoid miscommunication. An example; In the US a thumbs indicates an affirmative response but in the Middle East, this gesture is highly offensive.
In the US and Europe, we value our schedules and prefer people be on time for things. However, in Latin America punctuality is not that big of a deal and people tend to run late for pretty much everything. In face, in the US Latin American communities still hold on to this value. Don’t be upset when someone shows up late because it might adhere to their own cultural protocol.
Becoming culturally aware…
It doesn’t take too much time to look up the key factors to consider before heading off to your destination. I took a class during grad school focused on this which helped me understand it better but I still do quick searches. It’s simple. Just go to google, type in cultural awareness+name of your destination, and your sure to find more than enough information. Overtime, it won’t seem like work but just something as routine as packing and checking into your flights.
Through cultural awareness and sensitivity, you will become a better traveler and a better global citizen!