By Ariana Arghandewal
Americans have a pretty bad reputation abroad, and it’s somewhat undeserved. I grew up in Germany, where the word “American” stood for “cool” and “nice.” Generally, it’s the more enlightened of us that travel abroad and we’re generous tippers, so what’s not to like? A lack of cultural understanding may be to blame.
It’s important when you travel to keep a short checklist of things not to do to disrespect locals and present yourself as a good cultural ambassador for your country. Here’s our four-step checklist for being a good tourist, no matter where you may be headed:
Learn a few key phrases in the local language. There’s nothing more obnoxious than people who travel to a foreign country and expect everyone to speak the same language as them. It’s arrogant and disrespectful to the locals. Learning a few key phrases will not only make communication easier, but it can remove cultural barriers and create a more enriching experience. The words “please,” “thank you,” and simple terms for directions or merchandise prices can really come in handy. It’s also a good idea to learn the names of common dishes so ordering at restaurants isn’t so confusing (for everyone). If you‘re traveling to a country where the local language is one of the big popular languages – Spanish, French, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, German – Duolingo is a great phrase-learning tool, and it’s free. And at the absolute very least, if you don’t want to learn a language, get Word Lens and have it translate signs, menus, and text for you.
Respect the local dress code. Dressing inappropriately is one of the easiest ways to offend locals and attract negative attention. A few years ago, while wandering through Kabul’s Shar-e-Nau area, I came across a group of what I assumed were tourists. One of them, a woman, was wearing a T-shirt and no headscarf. How this didn’t incite a traffic accident I’ll never know, because every single person who passed her stopped and stared, some of them quite angrily. You can’t expect a country to adjust its cultural and religious norms for you, so dress according to local customs and avoid insulting people unnecessarily. If that means you have to don clothing you personally view as a symbol of oppression or discrimination, so be it. If you’re unwilling to accept a country’s dress code, then stay home or travel to a destination that lets you dress the way you want to. The local U.S. consulate can give you the lowdown on the local dress code; otherwise, consult a good guidebook like the Rough Guides.
Be aware of any gestures or behaviors that could be insulting. Whether it’s insulting hand gestures or behavior deemed inappropriate, it’s good to familiarize yourself with the social norms of the country you’re visiting. This could mean refraining from public displays of affection in the Middle East or avoiding direct communication with females in the Middle East while males are present. Something I’ve witnessed far too often is people behaving inappropriately at various houses of worship, whether it’s not abiding by dress codes or taking selfies where none are allowed. Ignoring behavioral norms are the easiest and fastest way to be labeled a terrible tourist. Loud drunks are universally despised (except in certain situations in China), so watch the liquor intake. Again, the consulate or a good guidebook can help with the local customs and mores.
Don’t trash the place (literally and figuratively). We’ve all been told not to litter, yet some of us ignore this lesson in our daily lives. While it’s not acceptable to litter at home, it’s even more rude to do it abroad. Locals will see it as an insult, which is why Koh Phangan’s Full Moon parties are partly to blame for the increased hostility between Thailand’s locals and tourists.
On a related note, try to refrain from criticizing the locals or bashing them within earshot. I’ve certainly been to places that I didn’t warm up to, or where the locals didn’t exactly warm up to me. (Editor’s Note: Quebec is notorious for this secret bilingualism, but it goes on more places than you realize.) Even if you suspect nobody speaks English, avoid talking badly about the locals or their culture. At least until you’re in the safe confines of your hotel room.
The best way to be a good tourist abroad is to remember the lessons we learned in pre-school: Be polite, be respectful, and don’t litter. Do that and you’ll have a better travel experience – and leave behind a positive impression of your home country.
Ariana Arghandewal is the creator of http://www.pointchaser.com, a fun and informative look at travel deals across the internet and around the world.