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Embracing Diversity in Travel

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Embracing Diversity in Travel

As travelers, we have the privilege of experiencing diverse cultures and traditions around the world. With this privilege comes the responsibility to approach unfamiliar customs with sensitivity and respect. Let’s explore the importance of cultural sensitivity and provide practical guidance on how to honor local customs, traditions and etiquette as we travel.

Dress Appropriately

  • Research Dress Codes: Before visiting a new destination, research the local dress codes and norms. In conservative cultures, modest attire may be required, especially when visiting religious sites or rural areas. When we visited mosques in Istanbul, Jackie wore a headscarf out of respect. There were also specific dress codes at the Vatican in Rome. 
  • Covering Up: When in doubt, opt for clothing that covers shoulders, cleavage, and knees, particularly in places of worship. Carry a scarf or shawl to cover bare shoulders or legs if needed.
  • Respect Religious Attire: Be respectful of religious attire, such as headscarves, turbans or robes. Avoid touching or taking photos of religious garments without permission.

Mind Your Language

  • Learn Basic Phrases: Take the time to learn a few basic phrases in the local language, such as greetings, thank you and please. Locals appreciate the effort, even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect.
  • Use Polite Language: Be mindful of your tone and language when interacting with locals. Avoid using slang, offensive language or raising your voice, especially in public places.
  • Respectful Communication: In some cultures, direct communication may be considered rude or confrontational. Practice patience and diplomacy, and be open to subtle cues and nonverbal communication.

Respect Local Customs and Traditions

  • Observe and Learn: Take the time to observe local customs and traditions, and ask questions respectfully to deepen your understanding. Participate in cultural activities with an open mind and a willingness to learn.
  • Follow Local Etiquette: Pay attention to social norms and etiquette, such as greetings, gestures and dining customs. For example, in some cultures, it’s customary to remove your shoes before entering someone’s home. In Istanbul, it is expected that you drink tea at the end of your meal so we did that even when we were completely full. 
  • Respect Sacred Sites: When visiting religious or sacred sites, follow the rules and regulations, such as removing your shoes, covering your head, or refraining from photography. Maintain a respectful demeanor and avoid disruptive behavior.

Be Mindful of Cultural Sensitivities

Three people sitting at a table in a restaurant
Once we established that we were all on the same page politically, we had deep and insightful conversations with our guide in Istanbul.
  • Sensitive Topics: Exercise caution when discussing sensitive topics such as politics, religion or cultural practices. Be respectful of differing opinions and avoid engaging in controversial conversations. Though we were able to engage in political and religious conversations with certain tour guides, once we ascertained we could do that without offending them. The key is to lead with curiosity, not with a goal to change their minds. 
  • Personal Space: Respect personal space boundaries, especially in crowded areas or public transportation. Avoid intrusive behavior such as touching or taking photos without permission. This is not always an option, especially on very crowded trams when you have to push your way on or you won’t ever get to where you need to go. 

By embracing cultural sensitivity and respect when we travel, we not only enrich our own experiences but also foster positive interactions with locals and contribute to a more harmonious global community. This also helps others when they travel, so locals aren’t expecting them to be “that American.”

Jackie Shelton, APR, is a strategic communications veteran who, after 30 years still has a hard time focusing on one particular aspect, so she has stopped trying.

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