The world’s differences extend beyond ancient ruins, beaches, and language. For example, if you throw out a peace sign in London, you might find trouble. That simple V-shaped hand gesture you used to order two burgers might get you two black eyes instead. In England, the so-called universal sign of peace, if turned the wrong way, corresponds to “flipping the bird” here in the states. Funny how two fingers mean something so vastly different in a country that is seemingly so similar. Give a friendly passer-by in the Middle East a thumbs-up and you can expect the same unpleasant reaction. Was the food so good you cleared the plate? In China, this insults the host; though feel free to burp if you found the food pleasing. They’ll appreciate it. These little cultural idiosyncrasies mean a world of difference to people. However small each seems, they serve to illustrate how different the world is.
You cannot expect the same cultural rules to apply everywhere you go. Travelers sometimes mistakenly expect the world to accommodate or excuse their behavior. This pride can lead to some unfortunate circumstances.
Earlier this year, two American women snuck away from their tour group to etch their initials in the ancient Roman Colosseum. Italian law enforcement quickly discovered their personalization and promptly escorted them to jail. Apparently, it is illegal to deface the Colosseum. Who knew?
One of the women said, “We did not imagine it was something so serious.” Even if her actions were inexcusable, she is probably telling the truth. A little research might have helped. Many tourists seem prone to treat other countries as they do theme parks, designed for their entertainment.
Americans are not solely to blame, but they supply plenty of poorly behaved tourists. Among several studies, The United States are chart toppers among the worst of the world’s visitors. Why is that? It’s more than simple hand gestures. Consider the alternatives to common tourism misconceptions:
Don’t criticize the culture, embrace your differences.
Many cultures have ceremonies or rituals whose origins stem from a time long before the colonial expeditions to the New World. Though many seem strange, archaic, and maybe even offensive at first, remember the importance they place upon them. Take the time to ask the “what” and “why” in an effort to understand. You may find similarities you did not consider.
Don’t demand home away from home, try something new.
You have eggs and pancakes every breakfast back home, but when in Rome eat as the Romans do. Treat a trip abroad as an opportunity not a burden. Take time to understand a different way of life even if it may seem a little difficult at times. You may come away from the experience more appreciative of your circumstances or even find new additions to your breakfast menu.
Don’t take pictures of the residents, talk to them instead.
Few people enjoy the zoo animal treatment. Though many cultures dress drastically different, selfies with people you find strange won’t win you any diplomatic points. Talk to them instead. People prefer to interact and discuss their lives and culture. It’s fine to have a fascination for the people, but allow yourself to learn instead of gawk.
Don’t insist on English, blend in with the community.
A few tourist destinations or hotels will probably have English speakers for convenience. In town however, chances are very few will speak your language. You don’t need a fluent understanding of their language though. Take a moment to learn a few words like “Thank You,” most cultures will be happy that you tried even if you did not pronounce it correctly. More importantly, observe the unspoken language. If you find yourself among a crowd who are quiet and reverent, do likewise.
Don’t base your entire understanding on a culture from the media, do some research.
Not all Germans wear lederhosen and chug beer just as Americans are not all rootin tootin cowboys. The television has a tendency to stereotype and sensationalize leading to widespread misconceptions. Don’t arrive with preconceived notions or you may embarrass and disappoint yourself. Research your destination. Understand a little about the culture, their values, and temperament. You will blend in, better equipped to observe and learn instead of disruptively stick out.
If in doubt, ask yourself why you chose to travel in the first place. Each culture is a wonder but the world loses its magic if you try to paint everything one color.