Travellers usually wish to respect the people, culture and environment they are visiting. You are also leaving impressions of your culture on the places you visit. There are some general guidelines that help to show respect at most destinations. Accordingly, these guidelines are not repeated in the destination guides.
|“||When in Rome, do as the Romans do.||”|
—Proverb attributed to Saint Ambrose.
Many people are happy to talk about politics and religion and their viewpoints. But these topics must always be approached carefully by visitors, and many people just think it easier to avoid these subjects altogether. Talking about sex is often taboo, and even if not, it makes many people feel uncomfortable; thus it is usually best avoided.
Some people in all cultures find swearing offensive, and it usually varies between people at a destination. Sometimes it differs by region, sometimes by gender or age. Take your cues from the individuals you are talking to at the time, or simply don't swear to avoid the possibility of offense. At your destination people might use language or words that you find offensive, but which they may not.
Also, slang and swear words can be poorly understood, or have entirely different connotations or meanings at a destination. To give just one example "coger" means "to take" in Spain but is an obscene reference to coitus in most of Latin America. An innocent mistake might cause snickering, but do try to avoid using the wrong slang in the wrong situation.
Jokes that mention race, ethnicity or traumatic historical events, such as wars, disasters, and terrorist attacks, are best avoided, as are any jokes in bad taste. You can often hear locals making jokes of these genres, but somehow the jokes aren't quite as funny and can be offensive when told by a visitor – and you don't know the line between accepted and offending ones. Jokes based on stereotypes of the country you visit tend to be not funny to locals and they usually have heard them about a thousand times already.
|“||One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.||”|
In a foreign country, it is tactful to ask questions and listen to locals' opinions of politics, and refrain from offering too much of your own editorials (although sharing your opinions on your own country's politics can be good conversation). Locals, naturally, tend to have a deeper knowledge of their own politics, and generally do not like being lectured by foreign visitors. Emphasize sharing, not preaching. A difference that often occurs is what importance democracy takes above the "achievements" or political inclination of certain non-democratic regimes. Travelers to Nicaragua may find it baffling how often Somoza is talked about in a "he wasn't that bad" fashion or the relative prosperity in his reign is even looked upon with nostalgia. All that despite the fact that his brutal dictatorial regime was toppled through armed insurrection.
In some countries certain political topics or viewpoints are off limits as the government cracks down on them. This is usually not evident from anything and indeed oppressive regimes usually make people think less is permitted than actually is to activate people's self censorship. Not only the thing that's said but also who says it and in what context may matter. The regime may tolerate a tour guide making a few jabs at the receding hairline of the dear great leader but will jail any oligarch who so much as says "hair" in his presence or the exact reverse. Tread very lightly and better avoid the topic altogether. If you fear your loose lips might betray you, consider not visiting certain places altogether.
Also, don't assume that the political or social attitudes of locals are the same as those of members of that country's diaspora whom you may know back home. Particularly if you live in a Western country, the diaspora you know may be composed largely of political dissidents or other people who didn't "fit in" for one reason or another.
Being interested in the history of the country or region you are travelling to is certainly a good thing, but again historical events can be a very sensitive issue. If you've ever seen a number of people from different countries debate an event like World War II and who was most instrumental to the allied victory on an anonymous Internet forum, you probably know how this kind of topic can be controversial. Special caution is advised if your country of origin has a history that is intertwined with your country of travel through colonialism, interventions or invasions. Don't be surprised if locals know of figures and atrocities you've never heard of or see your "benevolent former leader" as a bloodthirsty tyrant or your "forgettable political non-entity" as the savior of their nation. Rutherford B Hayes is popular in Paraguay. Would you know why? Exactly.
Also keep in mind that certain historical events may be perceived differently in different countries. For instance, Turkey officially denies that the Armenian Genocide ever took place, and referring to the event as a genocide is illegal in Turkey. Likewise, Japan's colonisation of much of Asia in the first half of the 20th century is remembered as a brutal occupation in most of the formerly occupied areas, in particular in China and South Korea, but is largely regarded positively in Taiwan and Japan itself.
Some criticism of local government and other local institutions is common at most destinations. However, when this criticism comes from a visitor there is always the risk that the same criticism will be taken personally. Offense can occur even if all the visitor does is agree with the criticisms made by a resident.
Symbols of a country, such as the flag or head-of-state, or even the captain of the local sporting team, can be legitimate subjects of discussion and derision for locals, but it can easily cause offense if similar comments are made by a visitor. While positively comparing the place you're visiting to a rival often endears you to locals, going overboard in trashing Fürth while visiting Nuremberg or bashing Costa Rica on a trip to Nicaragua may lead to negative reactions, especially if it is seen as an outsider saying something that only locals are "allowed" to say. And who knows, the people you are talking with may have ties to that supposed rival.
In some countries, criticism of certain individuals is prohibited by law. For example, criticism of the king or other members of the royal family is illegal in Thailand, while criticism of national heroes such as Ho Chi Minh and Vo Ngyuen Giap is illegal in Vietnam.
Areas often have local sensitivities, due to historical conflicts and local rivalries. It can be insulting to refer to a smaller neighboring independent country or region as part of a larger neighboring one; rather, it's best to be aware, and to be accurate. Some regions have disputed territories, and even if the governments have reached agreement, people can have strong opinions. In addition, some locales are afflicted by tension between ethnic, racial, religious or political groups. While this may be visible, and may be the subject of local conversation, it may be looked at as rude or insensitive to offer commentary; this may be so particularly if you are looked on as an "outsider" or foreigner.
There are stereotypes about most nations and cultures. Some are at least partly accurate; others are utterly bogus.
Avoid inflicting your stereotypes on locals. It's almost always the case that most people in the place you're visiting are aware of the stereotype, and they likely will have heard the joke before. Some may be offended.
Be prepared for locals to have some stereotypes about, or amazing ignorance of, your culture. Gently correcting these is fine; it may even work. Getting dramatically offended about them makes you look ridiculous and is quite unlikely to change anything.
Imitating the local accent will usually be taken as an attempt to mock it, rather than as a genuine attempt to communicate. Some pick up on the local accent and jargon without even realising it. If you are one of them, be sensitive about how it is received.
- See also: Clothes
Regardless of the legal position at destinations, public nudity is generally only acceptable in designated locations. Just what constitutes nudity is sometimes different from country to country and culture to culture.
While in parts of Europe (specifically former East Germany) nudism is frequently practiced at the beach and topless sunbathing is possible for both genders, behavior like female public toplessness would surely cause offense (or even a prison term) in countries such as Malaysia, let alone Saudi Arabia.
Attitude to public breastfeeding varies a lot between communities. Even where there are explicit laws protecting it, there may be strong social stigma against it. You may be expected by social custom or even law to cover the area in some way or keep out of sight or it may be seen as non-issue and people who get huffed and puffed over it derided. If you're traveling with an infant try to read up on the local customs and laws and if possible find alternatives where breastfeeding seems difficult. Don't assume that places which have otherwise conservative dress codes frown on public breastfeeding, nor that places with relatively liberal attitudes toward dress are more relaxed about public breastfeeding.
You might not want to dress like locals, and there is often quite some leeway for foreigners, but you might not want to offend more than necessary. Check what locals will expect.
In some societies dressing appropriately is an important virtue, and as your being a person wealthy enough for travel, sloppy dressing might be seen as an insult. There can be expected or enforced dress codes at restaurants and other establishments. Also in the street, short shorts may be seen as imprudent, as may sleeveless shirts and too deep cleavage.
In some Muslim countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is mandatory for women to cover their hair in public, while Afghanistan takes it even further by prohibiting women from showing their faces in public.
Don't wear beachwear away from the beach, unless you see local cues that it is okay.
While the bikini is nowadays acceptable on westernized beaches in most of the world, Islamic countries tend to demand more conservative dress and locals in many places may wear a t-shirt with their swimwear. There is also often a difference between very touristy beaches and places mostly frequented by locals. While as late as the 1920s a photograph showing the then President Friedrich Ebert in swimwear caused major scandal in Germany, in general, dress codes for male swimwear are much more relaxed around the world.
Houses of worship
In general there will be a dress code for houses of worship. It can be summed up as "conservative and not too casual" but the details may vary. In particular, Christians were traditionally expected to dress in their best clothes when going to church on Sunday. In synagogues men must cover their heads, whereas in churches it is customary for men to take off any headgear. In mosques female visitors are usually expected to don a headscarf even if they aren't Muslim, and all women are expected to cover their head in a shawl when visiting Russian churches. Both men and women are required to cover their hair in a Sikh gurdwara. In very touristed areas such rules are often spelled out near the entrance, sometimes even in more than one language, but off the beaten track the unwritten rules are often very much unwritten but still taken very seriously. Many denominations welcome visitors from other faiths, though some do not; in particular, non-Muslims are prohibited from entering mosques in some places.
In crowded places, step to the side when stopping, so others may pass. On busy escalators, airport travelators, and similar constructions there is often a convention to stay to one side if standing, so those walking can pass. Which side is which varies, from city to city, and country to country. It may or may not correspond to which side of the road you drive on. Stay alert to what the locals are doing.
Don't just assume that walking on a public park lawn is permitted. In many cities, you will see people doing various activities on the public park grass. However, in many places, it is generally forbidden to walk on a lawn in a public park, and could be acceptable only as an exception. When travelling, don't expect to be informed by a sign that walking on a lawn is forbidden (it may be there, but you just haven't seen it)—just treat it as such, unless you have good reason to believe otherwise.
- See also: Public transport
Different countries and cities have implicit etiquette rules for public transport, which can be rather different (acceptable distance, eating and drinking, phone calls, where to walk and stand, etc). There are similar rules for flying.
Especially at rush hour public transport can get very crowded. It is a common courtesy to let people off the train/bus/tram before boarding yourself. If people are visibly impaired in their mobility (wheelchair-users, people with small children etc.), don't get into their way. You may try to help if needed and possible, but sometimes it is better to leave that to locals. Don't just grab a wheelchair or the arm of somebody to be helped, but ask whether you can help. Also make sure children and their parents have room to board and get off as a group.
When in doubt, copy what everyone else is doing. If everyone on the escalator is either standing on the right or walking on the left, then don't stand in the middle. Many buses have a system where one door is for entering and the other for exiting only.
A big pet peeve of riders and drivers alike is blocking the door area. In general the vehicle can't move when the doors are blocked. In modern vehicles this is sometimes ensured with a photo sensor and if you don't get out of the door area the doors can't close and the vehicle cannot move. Also, don't stand so that you obscure the view of the driver.
In some cultures, the normal thing to do is to sit where others sit, while elsewhere people want as much private space as possible. In some places there is official or semi-official sex segregation, but also elsewhere choosing a seat next to somebody of the opposite sex may be sensitive. Note body language.
If there are arm rests, overhead lockers or reclining seats, there are probably unwritten rules on how not to inconvenience your co-travellers. Check that what you intend to do is OK for those who might be bothered. Also, if you have bulky luggage, you might want to check how to make as small a fuss as possible.
Despite the frequent "people in country x drive like crazy" assertions out there, there are actually traffic rules and unwritten rules of courtesy that many local drivers stick to. Especially when driving with a local license plate, you'd do well to read up on those and follow them. One example of such a "common courtesy" rules is signaling dangers ahead to drivers coming the other way; another is indicating when it is okay to overtake your slower vehicle. Driving "like the locals" without seeing the local hints will make you a truly dangerous driver.
On another note, while driving more defensively than the locals might make you slower or lose you a parking spot every once in a while, it'll be better for your sanity and safety, and people's opinion of you in the long run. Better to have people blow the horn than to have an accident. You might also consider using local drivers.
- See also: Religion and spirituality
Sacred places include constructed religious sites, cemeteries, tombs and memorials, and land significant to indigenous cultures. Some of these sites are interesting destinations for travellers.
Access to some of these sacred places can be restricted entirely, or even restricted to people of a certain religion or gender, and these restrictions should be observed.
Dressing conservatively and showing respect are appropriate anywhere, but details vary by place. It is a very good idea to learn a bit about the local rules before venturing near a sacred place. In most Christian churches, a man should remove his hat, but in a synagogue he should don a yarmulke, and to enter a mosque or a Hindu or Buddhist temple, he should remove his shoes.
Keep voices down anywhere; in some places, silence is required. Mobile phones should be silent. Children are not normally excluded, and rules regarding dress or noise are often not as strictly enforced for young children. Often there is some tolerance of very young children crying, but usually less so for older children running around.
Religious buildings and sacred places may be actively used for ceremonial purposes or for services, in addition to being destinations for travellers. It is better to wait for a service or ceremony to conclude before visiting.
Some symbols may have positive connotations and religious symbolism for certain communities, but could have strong negative associations for others.
Perhaps the most well-known of such symbols is the Swastika. It is used as a religious symbol by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, and is a highly revered symbol in much of Asia, where it represents peace and the balance of opposites, and is often displayed as a good luck charm. On the other hand, it is associated with Nazism, antisemitism and white supremacy in most Western countries, thus making it very offensive, or in some countries even illegal to display the symbol. Asian visitors to Western countries should avoid displaying the symbol to avoid offending local sensibilities, or even getting into trouble with the law. Conversely, Western visitors to Asian countries should be aware of its religious significance, and not kick up a fuss over seeing widespread use of the symbol.
Use and interpretation of gestures also depends on the culture. For example, the "thumbs up" gesture is used in the west for hitchhiking and to signal approval or success, but in Iran it is quite rude, approximately equivalent to the western gesture with the middle finger.
Perhaps the highest rate of intercultural pitfalls occur when being invited to someone's home. While people will be somewhat prepared to excuse innocent mistakes if they invite someone from a very different culture into their homes, problems may arise when one or both sides simply assumes certain things are "just the way things are". For example, in many countries it is customary to remove shoes while inside someone's home – house shoes may be issued and if you see them next to a group of street shoes near the entrance this should cue you in to ask whether you should take off your shoes. Ask a second time if the culture is known for phrasing stuff indirectly. In general bringing a gift for your hosts is a good idea, but which gifts are considered appropriate varies from culture to culture and sometimes from individual to individual – treat particularly lightly with flowers or booze as the former might send an unintended romantic message and the latter might be seen as offensive. A particular pitfall of the very casual American culture is that people will extend what seems to be an invitation without actually meaning to host you at all.
There is a fairly standard set of dining etiquette that is observed throughout Europe from Portugal to the Caucasus, which is also followed by majority European diaspora countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Generally the knife is held in the right hand and the fork in the left, and it is rude to rest your elbows on the table; rest only your wrist.
Chopsticks are commonly used in China, as well as in neighbouring Japan, Korea and Vietnam. While there are some minor differences, chopstick etiquette is generally similar across these countries. Most notably, never stick your chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice, as that is associated with funerary rites. In many cases, it is rude to start eating before the most senior person at the table has started eating.
In many parts of the world, it is still common to eat by hand. In most such places, you should only use your right hand to handle food, as the left hand is reserved for handling dirty things.
In large cities it would generally be impossible to acknowledge others that you pass. However, when there are few people around, say on a non-urban track, it is commonplace to make some acknowledgment of a person as you pass. A greeting in the local language, or if you don't speak the local language, a look or a nod is usually sufficient.
Standards vary. In the Paris metro people are mostly ignoring each other not to be overwhelmed, but entering a local shop you are expected to greet the shopkeeper, and have them guide you. The context may also change rapidly: you might be expected to ignore people, but if your eyes meet, the expectation might be reversed.
Everyday environment as sight
Where people are living in an area regarded as a sight, such as an old town, the locals may be intimidated on a regular bases by tourists staring at them, not respecting their privacy, and asking for help and services. While tourism may be a great source of income, people still want to live their private lives, and tourists may also be the source of severe problems, such as inflated prices and environmental degradation.
Try to follow advice on responsible travel, respect people's privacy, use commercial services that benefit the local community, and avoid depending on local goodwill.
Naming conventions and modes of address vary greatly between countries. See the specific country articles for details. For instance, while it is a major faux pas to address someone in Japan by first name unless they are young children (elementary school or younger) or very close friends to you, while using first names even in the most formal situations is the norm in Thailand and Iceland. In most Western countries, the default is to use a title + last name in formal situations. For instance, John Smith would usually be addressed as "Mr. Smith". The main exception is British knights and dames; they are always addressed as Sir/Dame + first name even in the most formal situations.
There are also certain modes of address that are use for certain office holders. Here we list some of the more common ones:
- Your Excellency — presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors
- Your Majesty — monarchs
- Your Highness — members of the royal family
- Your Honour — judges
- Your Holiness — the Pope
If you are on a journey where you expect to meet any such title holders, you should probably research appropriate conduct also otherwise.
The volumes of visitors to sites of environmental significance can often threaten the environment they came to see. The same can be true for cultural sights. In natural environments, stay on walkways, don't make new tracks, don't remove natural features, and dispose of any litter/trash in the appropriate bins, or take it with you.
Taking pictures of people requires sensitivity. Photography of people as part of a scene is generally okay. Photography of people involved in an attraction is generally okay also. Whether legally permitted or not, it is best to obtain permission to photograph individuals going about their daily life. Sometimes this can just take the form of a smile while pointing at your camera. In some countries it is common for someone being photographed in this way to ask for money. Taking pictures of children is often sensitive, and can worry their parents.
In some areas, photographing military installations, government buildings, border areas, airports or even bridges can get you in trouble. Some governments are distinctly paranoid and may consider such photos a threat to national security.
Regardless of your individual beliefs and predispositions—and regardless of local people's potential misgivings about their law enforcement (in many places, law enforcement organizations don't have such a great reputation)—it's a safe bet that by staying on the good side of the law, you have shown respect, and by breaking a (any) law, you have shown disrespect to the community you're visiting. If one of your priorities is to show respect, which is generally conducive to having a good time, just obey the laws, whatever they are: find out in advance! Treat the fact that you can decide whether you like the laws or not in advance as a luxury. If you are inclined to break any law, don't go, or merely accept that your priorities are not tuned to your having the best of times. A simplified way to see it is this: the law enforcement is there to enforce laws that you've consented to upon entering the country. If you accept this maxim, not positioning yourself antithetically to local law enforcement is a mere matter of consistency. Their methods and tactics may seem fine to you, or they may not, but as a visitor, you can't realistically do anything about it, except to keep yourself out of trouble. If this is too simplistic for you, at least appreciate that the other side generally applies said logic: this is why foreign lawbreakers are often received with heightened antipathy, and are given no leeway.
It's best to show deference to local law enforcement. Almost anywhere, members of law enforcement have the authority to arrest or otherwise hassle you, such as, typically, by making you wait for longer than you're accustomed to. Be calm and patient, and don't complain (it will save you time and trouble down the line). Keep your guard up by not letting yourself be seen as annoying. Particularly avoid insulting them, behaving in a way that could be perceived as threatening, or running from them. If you move your hands in a way that could be interpreted as reaching for a weapon (e.g. getting your ID out of your pocket) clearly say what you are doing, as nervous police have more than once misinterpreted such a situation.
In areas and languages where a distinction between "formal you" and "informal you" exists, always address police and similar forces with the "formal you" even if they address you with "informal you".
Understand their limitations
In many areas around the world, however attractive they may seem, and however open and welcoming the local population may be, law enforcement is not all that accustomed to dealing with foreigners. As a general rule, if you don't have a good reason to think that law enforcement is interested in helping you in a non-emergency, don't expect helpfulness on their part. For example, in some areas, even within the same country, it's normal to ask the police for directions, but elsewhere this is not the norm at all.
Respect that for a member of the local police, communicating with you efficiently, in a language that you understand, may not be within their ability—they could become frustrated or act a little confused, but you shouldn't. Remember to stay composed and politely reserved, and let them finish whatever they are saying, even if you don't understand a word of it. The majority of the time when they stop you the police will simply want to know who you are, and what you're doing, sometimes out of banal curiosity. For this reason, it's important to always carry your passport with you. Talk in short sentences and don't try to express anything more advanced than: "I am a visitor to your country (tourist, for example); I'm carrying a passport; I am staying in a hotel".
Use common sense
In some places they are armed. Use common sense, and put in some effort in understanding the security context: In some European countries, entrances to certain buildings that attract a lot of visitors, such as synagogues, are guarded by rifle-toting gendarmes. It's fine to walk past them and enter. But in the vast majority of other situations, if an armed guard is standing by an entrance to a building, simply stay away; don't approach, or look like you would approach. There may be a law enforcement member somewhere nearby willing to help you, but that armed guard is very likely not the right person to try talking to. Likewise, if that building is the one you specifically want to enter (a police station or a town hall, for example), treat that as probably not being the proper entrance (maybe it's on the other side).
In some areas, various non-government groups may also be armed and dangerous. See War zone safety.
- For more information on what happens at the border, see the Border crossing article.
This also applies to border officials, since they can easily delay your trip, mess up your luggage or even your body with intrusive searches, deny you entry to their country, and make a note in their computer system that will get you denied, detained or even arrested if you return.
Racial and national identity
In most countries, racial and national identity is a sensitive topic.
As a general rule, do not make assumptions about someone's nationality, ethnicity or faith, based on another of the three, nor on their appearance (for example, skin color) or language.