8 Ways to Practice Cultural Sensitivity While Traveling

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The phrase “when in Rome” originated in the 4th century AD, and has since been applied to a number of situations (often in a lighthearted context) when visiting a new place, or engaging with a culture different from one’s own.

While these tips are designed to give an overview on respecting local customs and traditions while traveling, it’s always a good idea to do more in-depth research specific to the place you’re going to before you go. 

1. Check the Dress Code

Research local clothing etiquette, such as avoiding Western-style swimwear on public beaches in favor of items like modest swimwear, or other covered-up styles. Dress codes are frequently related to cultural or religious practices and should be worn in a way that respects (rather than appropriates) them.

2. Don’t Be “That Tourist”

Assumptions, stereotypes and critical comparisons of the country you are in can quickly lead to miscommunications and even misrepresentation of your own culture. Taking care to avoid such misunderstandings also helps to pave the way for any future travelers from your own country.

3. Mind Your Manners

Be sure to research local etiquette; you’d be surprised how many Western customs are considered strange or even offensive elsewhere. In addition to rules surrounding food, drink, and turning up late (or too early), etiquette is especially important in places of worship, where customs like bowing or observing silence may apply.

4. Food and Drink

Food and drink can be a great way to socialize while immersing yourself in the local culture. Before you go, research the local cuisine so that you can embrace it while remaining mindful of any allergies or dietary restrictions, and take care not to make fun or show squeamishness around local dishes.

5. Time Your Trip

When planning your journey, factor in any cultural or religious holidays it may clash with. If your trip happens to coincide with a particular festival, avoid turning up uninvited, but if you are asked to attend, make sure that you are informed on the appropriate dress code and customs.

6. Watch Your Language

Certain styles of humor may not translate well in other countries. The same goes for body language and non-verbal cues (in some countries a thumbs-up can mean something very different!). Learn at least a few key phrases before you go (including those you’d use in emergencies), and if you’re unsure about pronunciation, it’s ok to ask.

7. Be Camera Conscious

Taking unsolicited pictures is generally frowned upon worldwide (especially those with children in), so always ask before taking any photos. Some cultures or religions may even forbid photography, so be mindful of this as well, and avoid taking pictures of religious ceremonies. 

8. Making It Sustainable 

You can support the local economy by purchasing from local businesses, but take care to ensure that any gifts or souvenirs don’t include materials like coral, eggs, turtle shells, bone or fur. It’s also a good idea to avoid single-use plastics and stick to a “leave no trace” policy, especially in nature spots. 

Making Connections

Cultural sensitivity is associated with politeness, but there’s much more to it than that. Learning about other countries and cultures can make your journey a more enriching experience, while fostering meaningful connections with the people you meet along the way.

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About Author

Kelly Lewis is the founder of Go! Girl Guides, the Women's Travel Fest and Damesly. She's an optimist, an adventurer, an author and works to help women travel the world.

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