The Culturally Aware Traveller
Over the years, I have been fortunate to travel to a number of countries whose culture and lifestyle is dramatically different from our relaxed lifestyle in Australia. Many of these counties have strong religious and cultural protocols that as a visitor you need to be aware of and respect.
In this post, I would like to share some hints for how to be a respectful traveller. We have found by following a few simple guidelines, that people are much more likely to talk to you and make friends if you show respect for them and their culture.
To start, here are some general points:
1. Open your mind. After all, aren’t you travelling to learn something new? By having an open mind, you will earn respect and be more readily welcomed by local people. Be tolerant and respect diversity, and importantly – observe social and cultural traditions and practices.
2. Respect human rights and show respect for your hosts. Treat people as you would like to be treated.
3. Protect wildlife and habitats. Don’t purchase products made from endangered plants or animals.
4. Have respect for the artistic, archaeological and cultural heritage.
5. Support the local economy. The best souvenir you can take home is something that has been made locally, where the money goes back to the community.
6. Take time to understand the customs and traditions of your host country. Avoid behaviour that could offend the local population. Some of these points will be discussed later.
7. Be familiar and comply with local laws
I hate to say this, but one of the big mistakes that Australians in particular make, and perhaps people from other western cultures, is being too laid back. They often take their relaxed attitude with them overseas, often not realising they are showing disrespect to their hosts, but also dressing in ways they would never do at home. Bali is a great example, often on the main street we will see people walking around in their swimming costumes like the whole island is a resort. Sorry peeps, the locals might not say anything to you but you are saying something to them – very loudly. Keep it at the resort, or at least throw on a tee-shirt and some shorts or a skirt before you decide to go for lunch in your bikini.
My rule of thumb here is don’t wear less than the locals. For example, when we travelled to Turkey I discouraged Marty from wearing shorts, as we were travelling to a Muslim country and I had some experience in dress etiquette from past trips to North Africa, Malaysia and Java. It was ironic when we met a tour guide who said that the Turks call people who wear shorts ” Germans” (which mens tourists), indicating that you stand out as a tourist when you are a guy wearing shorts. We were often complemented by locals (some of whom are now our friends), that we “are like Turkish”. I was so happy when people said this to us as I felt accepted, even though we are tourists.
When I pack to go to Turkey my wardrobe is not that different to what I wear at home (except around the house). Trousers, long skirts and long sleeve tops covering my shoulders and chest are staple items. With blouses and tops, I try to avoid tight, clingy fabric, opting for flowing designs that are also long enough to cover my backside. I also make sure I have an assortment of scarves, just in case we go to a mosque or somewhere more conservative, where I might need to cover my hair.
When I travel to Asia, I do pack a little lighter but try to follow some simple guidelines. In most Asia cultures it is not appropriate for women to expose their shoulders, so I avoid sleeveless tops. I also opt for longer skirts and trousers (below the knee). For men, it varies, but the rule about sticking to long or 3/4 length trousers in Islamic countries is a good one to follow.
This one is a challenge for me as I am left-handed, though my advice here is if you are travelling to a non-western country then you should eat with your right hand. There are lots of other rules to be aware of too – for example in India it is customary to wash your hands before eating – because it is acceptable to eat with your hands. I would say it is just good hygiene to wash your hands before eating. In many Asian countries you will get a fork and a spoon instead of a knife and fork. Watch the locals for hints here, but I tend to just use my fork to eat with and the spoon is to help push the food on the plate.
Keeping time and gestures
Many of the countries we have visited have very rubbery time management skills, often joking about how things run late – Turkish Time, 5 Turkish Minutes, Bali Time, Rubber Time as all common expressions. What we have learnt is that there is no point in getting cranky if things don’t run to time, you will always get there (fingers crossed). In Turkey the irony is that it is very uncool for you to be late, but you are not to complain if the other person is late.
Eye contact is a tricky one. As a westerner we are socialised to make eye contact, to look people in the eyes and smile. In rural Turkey there were some rules around this – women should only make eye contact with other women and men with other men. This used to be an interesting feat as we would walk a lot and people would often say hello, but after a couple of months we got the hang of it. Rural people in Turkey are incredibly generous and would offer food, lifts and tea, which we would always accept out of politeness, realising it was a great chance to learn more and meet some wonderfully kind people.
Another example of avoiding eye contact is closer to home. For many Aboriginal people in Australia, it is considered rude to look someone directly in the eye and a sign of respect to defer the gaze. I have mainly encountered this custom in the Northern Territory, especially when I was growing up. As a young person I understood this custom as a form of shyness.
The protocols around touching another person is something to be aware of when travelling – for example, touching people of the opposite sex is not acceptable in Islamic countries, unless you are family (or considered family). Touching people on the head is also a no-no in many Asian countries and with Maori peoples. My approach to meeting and greeting people in regards to touching, is that I let the person from the host culture guide me, for example – if someone offers a hand to shake, I accept. I take the same approach with other protocols including the hongi, the Maori greeting where you press noses and inhale. Also, read up before before you go.
The most important piece of advice I can offer about being a culturally aware traveller, is to have a great time on your journey, learnt lots and grow 🙂
Seeking your input
This post is a work in progress and if you have any pointers to add, please let me know and I will add your advice to this post.