As a frequent traveler, I try to keep in mind the following: “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
That may seem like an amorphous saying, but I take it to mean this: check your ethnocentrism at the airport.
One of the best – but often strangest – parts of traveling to places very different from where you live is experiencing another culture. It’s not for everyone; some people don’t feel comfortable getting out of what they know, which is not a bad thing, just a personal preference. I often find, though, there are people who want to experience different cultures, but are unprepared for doing so.
Nothing dampens a travel experience like internal or external conflict with the cultural or social norms of the country you’re visiting. The best way to avoid this is to go into a travel experience with an open mind and a willingness to learn.
In general, you can’t expect your own country’s values or ideals to be accepted everywhere you go. When you travel to places that differ substantially from where you call home, you must sometimes leave behind many of your own cultural norms and temporarily accept some new ones. It doesn’t mean you have to go to extremes, but it does mean that you need to be respectful of people and their customs and try to abide by them when necessary. This might mean not making jokes about being gay, not discussing certain social or political topics, covering your head with a scarf, refraining from engaging in public displays of affection, or not being visibly drunk in public. On top of being culturally sensitive, it can keep you from getting in real trouble, like finding yourself being detained for breaking the law.
Sometimes, we can be inadvertently offensive because we’re simply unaware. There are plenty of social norms or customs that might not be obvious to a visitor that have implications in your interactions with people – certain gestures or words that are considered rude or inappropriate, for example. The best way to prevent accidentally upsetting people is to do your research ahead of time. You can easily find information on local customs online or in guidebooks. Understanding local codes of behavior is an important part of planning for travel. It may be that where you’re going, there’s nothing to know; but in case there is, be a conscientious traveler and check. Not only will it prevent you from offending people, it’ll make your travel experience that much more enjoyable. If you’re acting like a jackass, good luck being able to have pleasant, educational interactions with the people you’re upsetting.
I’ve unfortunately read about travelers being disgruntled with local customs (like covering your head or shoulders at a religious site) and purposely bucking tradition in order to make a point. Don’t do this. This is unequivocally a dick move. It is not your prerogative as a traveler – a tourist, vacationer, visitor – to take stands against customs or beliefs you find disagreeable, or to balk at cultural norms or traditions because you have ~feelings~ about them. The origins and workings of most customs and government/religious/cultural institutions are far too complex for the casual traveler to understand anyway, so you’re not going to solve any of those perceived issues by being insensitive. This is what I meant when I said to check your ethnocentrism at the airport. Unless it’s your actual job to delve into these matters, be respectful and mindful of your attitudes and actions.
There have been times I’ve been uncomfortable with what I see or hear while traveling. Some places have customs and attitudes about women that trouble me on many levels. I am human and I have opinions on things like that – I suspect we all do, and by no means am I saying people are not entitled to those opinions. But there is a time and a place to discuss those, and as a visitor to another country, you should prioritize being respectful and culturally sensitive over ignorance or making a point.
This brings me to culturally sensitive photography. I love taking pictures of people and “daily life” when I travel. But don’t be disrespectful about it – either snap photos inconspicuously if you’re trying to snap a picture of people or scenes on the street, or better yet, if you’re wanting a photo of particular people, ask if they mind you taking their picture (you don’t even need to speak the same language to do this, simply smiling and pointing to your camera does the trick). I got a great picture of a couple of people walking their cows across the road in Peru. They smiled and waved for the photo, and in return I gave them some money for their time. It was a small price to pay to have a pleasant interaction with them and in return get myself a great memento of my time in Peru.
In short, don’t be a culturally insensitive jerk when you travel. Be mindful and respectful. It’s the least you can do.