As the story goes, when Queen Victoria received a guest who poured tea into his saucer and drank from it, she promptly did the same.
Good manners dictated that making her guest comfortable was more important than Her Majesty’s standards.
When Michaelle Jean was the Governor General of Canada, she ate raw seal meat at Nunavut’s 10th anniversary celebrations. She was criticized by much of the international press who drew political connections between her action and the seal hunt. Her good manners and respect for Inuit custom did not seem to count.
They occurred in different times and different places but both stories are about respecting other cultures with grace and good manners.
Sometimes it’s easy. Sipping tea from a saucer could hardly cause an international kerfuffle. Eating seal meat, however, did.
As a traveler, it is inevitable that we will encounter customs that are inconsistent with our values. Sometimes it's a big deal. Sometimes it's not. Where do we draw the line between mannerly respect for local culture and speaking our dissent?
Respect and Enjoy Local Culture as You Travel
I was once in a Barcelona market and was refused the opportunity to touch the fruit I wanted to buy. I wanted to feel its ripeness. Discover any bruises. But the woman at the stall was appalled and angry with me for trying. I was sent away. I learned that you don’t touch the fruit at the Barcelona market.
I can live with that.
With the right attitude, we can live with most cultural differences. In fact, they are a curious joy to me as a traveler rather than a challenge. Here are a few tips to help you respectfully delve into local cultures.
- Watch and learn. Take pause and watch how others do it before you do things like squeeze a tomato and you'll discover what good manners are in that culture.
- Schedule your day according to local customs. If siestas are the norm, don’t go looking for an open store in the middle of the day.
- Dress appropriately. This is especially important in certain cultures where dress is a reflection of respect. Do your research to understand local customs.
- Recognize what is highly valued.. Electricity and water are often precious commodities. Conserve them. Certain foods may be a huge treat. Know what they are so that you can be appropriately appreciative should you be offered some.
- Seek ways to give back to the community. Buy local products. Hire local tour guides. Eat at local restaurants. Give to a local charity.
- Learn a bit about the history. Understanding the history of a culture will help you better understand its world view and practices. People love it when you show some knowledge of their country. Express your curiosity and you'll likely be rewarded with an enthusiastic teacher.
- Recognize your own prejudices. At least try to. It's not easy as you view everything through your own cultural lens. Leave any inclination to judgement at home.
- Know that your sample is small. Just like at home, what one person does is not necessarily representative of an entire culture. Take the time to discern between individual action and cultural patterns.
When Local Customs or Politics Challenge Your Values
This comment from a reader is a good starting point for this issue.
“All too often I have led tours to parts of this world where my group participants consider the practice of neck elongation, facial tattoos, etc. “barbaric” and then they go home and have breast augmentation, botox, face lifts, etc.”
Before judging a local custom as a problem, it's important that we try to understand it from a human rights perspective. Is what's challenging your values a real problem or simply cultural differences that cause no more harm than some of the bizarre practices at home? Isn't it rather paternalistic to feel freer to judge another culture than your own?
On the other hand, the promotion of racism or sexism, systemic oppression, disregard for basic human rights, and the harm or exploitation of individuals infuriate me. But some evidence of such issues is more significant than others. For me, legally requiring women to wear certain attire is offensive but bearable, while physically harming women is not. These are extreme ends of a spectrum that includes complicated gray zones in between.
We often encounter customs that are unpalatable but tolerable. But what about when you see things that are intolerable? What do you do then? Here are some ideas:
- Consider the context first. Is it a discussion you find yourself in or an act that is harming someone? Obviously the former would be a safer situation to respond to than the latter.
- Always consider safety first. Especially as a solo traveler, you shouldn't do anything to compromise your physical safety.
- Stay calm and respectful. Take time to consider your response if you have one and then time your response carefully.
- Document what you see or hear. Take a picture or video if it is safe to do so. Take notes about it in writing including the time and place.
- Do not insult or directly criticize your host or host country. Respectfully ask questions – try the Socratic approach.
- Gently suggest alternative points of view. Never start with: “In my country…”
- Find an outlet for your concerns. Start a blog, contribute to media coverage, contact appropriate authorities, or join an organization that shares your position.
To Go or Not to Go
If your politics and values are in serious conflict with a country you plan to visit, you may want to choose another destination. Such concerns are typically reserved for countries with dictators or laws that contravene human rights. For some today, contemporary political culture in the United States puts the US in this no-go category. The result has been dubbed the Trump Slump. It is expected that the US economy will lose billions of dollars as travelers choose to go elsewhere for political reasons.
If you do go to a country that challenges your world view, you may discover that the impression you had from the news is not the reality on the ground. You may learn that you are not in conflict in the way you expected to be and that you have much in common with the people there. If you go, you may return to your country with greater understanding and tolerance to share with all.
I would be most interested in your thoughts on travel and culture. Let us know how you enter and enjoy a culture and what you do when local customs are in conflict with your values. Please contribute through the comments.