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The Gap Year Blog

How To: Remain Culturally Sensitive

11 Jul 2017 17:10 PM

For many, the most exciting part of traveling is the opportunity to experience different cultures: it can open the mind, help you meet new people and understand the world better. However, when exploring a different culture, it is important to remain sensitive to the norms of different communities. Here are five tips to get more out of your travels by being culturally sensitive:

1. Do your research

Guidebooks and the hundreds of travel websites that are out there can give you a great foundation for the kind of environment you will be stepping into once you get off the plane. Beyond that, taking the time read some works of fiction or watch a film set in the country you’re traveling to can add an extra dimension to your experience. Not only will you be in the know, but you’ll also have some great points of reference that you can look out for whilst on your travels – walking the same streets as your favourite author did, for example, makes the experience infinitely more exciting.

Photo Credit: Flickr | Sam Greenhalgh

By doing your homework, you’ll be prepared and know what to expect. For instance, if you’re planning on visiting any religious sights, you will be required to wear appropriate attire to enter. Knowing this in advance can prevent any awkward situations that the local community might find uncomfortable or even offensive. Once you’re there, try to observe the social norms. Sometimes, small things like giving tips to service staff can be important to note - if you’re in America, giving your waiter or waitress a tip is considered absolutely essential, whilst in Japan your gesture may be misunderstood as an insult.

2. Avoid drawing attention to yourself

It’s important to remember that wherever you are, the places you are visiting are home to functioning communities in themselves. Making your presence agreeable and trying to blend in will not only allow you to observe daily life at greater ease, but it won’t disrupt other people’s comfort. Taking note of certain things such as noise levels and attire can help you be a respectful guest – when visiting religious sites, for example, make sure to come prepared with appropriate attire, or avoid clothing with overt political messages or crude references. Sure, it may be tempting to indulge in the readily available, cheap alcohol that is available in some countries – but it’s the locals who’re going to have to deal with you stumbling through their streets.

3. Engage with locals

You don’t have to master the language, but it’s always a good idea to learn a few phrases of the local language that may come in useful. Not only could this help you out in a sticky situation, but it’s a great way to show locals you’re genuinely interested in connecting with their culture – to quote Nelson Mandela: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

Photo Credit: Flickr | banlon1964

Furthermore, having some knowledge about the country’s culture can open up engaging talking points that shows locals you have a genuine interest in learning more. This can lead to much more enriching conversation than average small talk would. Having said that, remember to remain sensitive with the questions you may be asking – depending on where you are, there may be certain subjects that you shouldn’t address. For instance, the political situation may be tense, and locals may be uncomfortable or even scared to talk about it. It’s best to gauge the situation first and only ask certain questions if they seem appropriate and welcomed.  

4. Look beneath the surface

It can be incredibly interesting to observe how certain behaviour may be a reflection of deep-rooted cultural norms. From things like punctuality to personal space, taking the time to dig deeper and understand the reasons behind etiquette or attitudes will help you gain deeper understanding of the community’s mindset. Certain things that may have seemed strange to you before will be put into context, and make the foreign become more familiar. Sure, this may be taking things a little beyond the basic tips, but trying to grasp the invisible cultural dimensions that lie beneath the surface can be a deeply intriguing journey to embark upon.

5. Think before you snap (people before pictures)

We all love taking great travel photos, and sometimes you just don’t want to miss getting that great shot. However, when it comes to people or sites of particular cultural or religious significance, it can sometimes be best to keep the lens cap on. Not to say that you shouldn’t be taking any photos altogether – but especially when photographing people, it can be a good idea to strike up a conversation first and then ask for a photo if it’s appropriate. In fact, your photographs may hold a lot more substance when the subject is willing and you have the memory of an interaction behind it. Knowing the story behind a picture can make the snapshot a lot more meaningful.

Photo Credit: Flickr | Azri

The point of being culturally sensitive whilst traveling is not to give you an extra checklist of things you need to do before and during your trip. On the contrary, making the extra effort allows for deeper, more authentic experiences that will stay with you long after you’ve returned home.

By Laura Hallensleben- Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservationcommunityteaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!