You’ve heard the “ugly American” stereotype right? The loud, rude, obnoxious American tourist that visits a country leaving a very indelible mark. Learning how to interact respectfully with the local well traveling can mean the difference between having an amazing experience, and one that just downright stinks. Small things make a big difference and even just employing one of these tips can net you friendlier service, local friends, and also helps preserve the local culture.
Learn the Taboos
Various different cultures have various different taboos or “no-no’s.” For example, in many Buddhist cultures, it’s considered rude to touch a child on the head. In many Middle Eastern cultures showing the bottom of your shoe or foot is seen as offensive. While these may not be a big deal in your culture you may have just seriously offended someone else. Most people understand that you may not know but taking a little time to learn cultural taboos before visiting another country can help keep you out of hot water.
Don’t Expect Them to Speak English – But Don’t be Surprised If They Do
A lot of people visit foreign countries and expect that the people living there will speak English. They can even be offended if they can’t find an English speaker. This attitude will not only alienate the locals, you’ll likely also miss out on a lot of rich potential interactions. Just because someone doesn’t speak the same language as you doesn’t mean they can’t communicate with you. Even with language barriers, you can have incredible experiences with locals. Don’t distance yourself just because you don’t speak the same language. With that in mind, you will be surprised to find many people around the world do speak English but can be hesitant to use it as they don’t feel adequate. In most countries people speak at least two languages, and many even more. You may be able to find a common language that is not English.
Learn the Basic Words
There are really only a few words you need in any language to get by and leave a good impression on locals. Some of these words include: “Please,” “Thank You,” “Hello,” “Where is X,” “This one,” “where is the bathroom,” and numbers. With just these few words, you’ll be able to make most basic requests. You can easily point at objects and say “one of this one please.” You can meet your basic needs for eating, finding a restroom, and purchasing things.
You won’t be able to have real conversations with people, but with a basic vocabulary you’ll be able to show that you care enough to actually learn to interact with them. If they do speak some English they may be more likely to use it with you once they see you’re also making an effort.
We’re heading to France in a couple months, so learning some basic French has been a priority. While we only know basic words and phrases, knowing some of the language will improve our overall experience in France and reduce my stress.
Learn One or Two Things Unique to the Culture
If you know little to nothing about an area you’re visiting, then what you see and experience likely won’t have as much of an impact. This is especially true when traveling with children. Find out what the significance is of major monuments, religious practices, or cultural festivities you may experience. For example if you visited India and didn’t know that beef was not readily available for purchase you could create a stir when you seek it out or are upset it’s not available.
Easy on the Pictures
When you’re somewhere new there’s a desire to document all of it however in some cultures taking photographs of people is not acceptable. Put yourself in the shoes of your subject, would you want someone photographing you? People in the places you visit are living their daily lives, they are not actors on display for tourists. Be aware and know sometimes it’s ok to just live in the moment without capturing it on film.
What are some other ways to respectfully interact with local cultures when you travel?