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When In Rome: Why You Should Always Respect The Host Culture
Let’s chat about respect, and call travel what it really is— a privilege that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Those who have worked in the travel and tourism industry could regale you with stories for days about their experiences with clients who want everything their way, and expect the rest of the world to kowtow to them. In business, of course, you could never actually tell a client they are being entitled, however much they need to be told they are.
Wherever your wanderlust takes you, it’s important to respect the rules and customs. Just as you wouldn’t put your feet up on the furniture, or raid the refrigerator when you are visiting somebody’s home, honor the space and its rules. This should be obvious, but a simple internet search will populate stories of travelers whose poor behavior earned them the consternation of the locals, or worse yet, got them in legal trouble.
Here are some ways you can avoid being perceived as the entitled, clueless traveler.
Research the social and cultural norms of your destination
We tend to do a lot of smiling here in The United States, and the chief reason is because we are a melting pot of different cultures, and smiling is a good way to bridge a linguistic barrier. But if you go someplace like France, smiling at complete strangers or trying to engage them in small talk isn’t the custom.
Americans will commonly say, “Hello! How are you?” whether we care how the other person is at the time or not. Generally, the French don’t do this with strangers, as they are, well, strangers. Please don’t take that personally. The Local, a French publication in English, states that French people are like coconuts, hard on the outside with a soft, more supple interior accessible to those they know intimately. There’s no need to ask a French shopkeeper you’ve never seen before (and will never see again) “comment ça va?” A simple “bonjour” followed later by a “merci beaucoup” will suffice.
Even if you’re only traveling across state lines— research
Think of The United States as 50 countries fused together. Every state will give you a different experience. New York, particularly the city, is big and fast-paced, which might be a culture shock for somebody from a small town with a slower way of life. Cities like New York City and San Francisco allow for getting around on foot or taking mass transit, but in rural areas, driving is the way to go. Moreover, according to The Washington Post, “urban areas are more liberal and rural areas are more conservative.” So unless you want to risk possible hostility, avoid politics or any other incendiary subject.
If the principal language isn’t English, attempt a few words in the native tongue
Learning a language is challenging, so don’t worry about trying to be fluent. We have technology on our side, and in seconds, your device can teach you how to say keywords and phrases. “Hello!” “Where is the bathroom?” and “How much does this cost?” are all things you’ll likely have to say at some point.
Learning how to say them in the host language, even if you do so clumsily, will get you far. Also, if you have some familiarity with Spanish or French, consider using the formal usted or vous, respectively, with authority figures, those who are older, and/or people you don’t know. Demanding that everyone around you speak English, especially when you make no effort to even meet them halfway, is peak entitlement.
If you hail from a historically marginalized group— don’t be afraid, be aware.
Let’s keep it real, equality is something humanity desperately needs to work on, and this is something Black people know all too well. If you are the only Black person in a non- Black space, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be treated badly, but you are going to stand out for sure. If you feel more comfortable traveling with a Black companion, do so.
Entering a site of worship? Please dress and act appropriately.
Whether you subscribe to a specific religion isn’t relevant here. The Basilique du Sacré Coeur in Paris or the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi aren’t the places to debut your new nightclub attire. Nor are they ideal for loud conversation. If you aren’t willing to dress modestly and keep your voice down, you might want to avoid churches, synagogues, and mosques.