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Are You Culturally Sensitive When Travelling?

Travelling abroad is always exciting, whether you are travelling for work, fun or education, there’s a lot to learn. Visiting different countries provides hands on experiences and teaches us a lot about the world in which we live. Through travel you gain a better appreciation for history, culture, food, customs and language. Travelling also forces you to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge your beliefs and preconceived ideas while expanding your knowledge of other ways of life.
When planning to travel abroad, the excitement begins the moment you book your adventure. Regardless of why you have chosen this destination, taking time to learn about the country, its culture and customs beforehand will enhance your journey.
While travelling around the world can be overwhelming, the key to having a good time lies in your attitude and willingness to learn. Keeping an open mind allows you to have an enjoyable time as you experience cultures and traditions that differ from your own. Just remember to be respectful of the people and cultures you encounter.

Here are some helpful hints about cultural differences:
1. Personal Displays of Affection (PDA):
In many countries unlike North America, personal displays of affection such as holding hands or kissing in public are considered inappropriate and will make the local population very uncomfortable. For example, in India kissing in public is illegal.

2. Appropriate dress:
If you will be visiting religious sites on your trip find out what the appropriate dress code is. For example, you may be required to cover your hair, legs or shoulders to visit certain sites. In Egypt when visiting the pyramids, it is hot but as you are in a predominately Muslim country wearing shorts or tank tops is considered offensive to the local population. On safari, natural colours are recommended as bright colours may agitated the animals.

3. Photography:
Before taking a picture of a person, you should always ask. In some cases, they may agree but want money for their photograph. With digital cameras it is easy to share the picture you have taken with the person and even inquire if they would like a copy via e-mail. Always obey “No Photograph Signs”.     

4. Language:
Wherever you travel learning a few key phrases, like “hello” “please”,” thank you” and “do you speak English?” These few words go a long way in conveying your respect and interest. Please do not travel abroad assuming that everyone in a foreign country will speak English.

5. Dining Etiquette:
Food etiquette varies widely between different cultures. For example, Italians don’t take home leftover food from a restaurant, in Japan tipping is not part of the culture, eating with your hands in Chile is considered bad manners and in Turkey drunkenness is considered a disgrace. Never clink your glass during a toast in Hungary, it is associated with the execution of the 13 Martrys of Arad in 1849.

6. Local/Cultural Superstitions:
Every country has them! Being aware will prevent you from unknowingly putting a curse on someone or experiencing a very embarrassing moment. In North America we have some that will be very familiar to many of you:
• Friday the 13th and the number 13 is bad luck
• Walking under a ladder will bring bad luck
• Never cross the path of a black cat
• Don’t break a mirror, which will bring 7 years of bad luck
• A four leaf clover or a rabbit’s foot brings continuous good luck
• Finding a penny and picking it up will bring a day of good luck
A few of my favourites from around the world:
In Russia: Carrying an empty bucket, or even seeing someone carry one, is a bad omen. Also whistling in your home will bring poverty.
In Spain: To ensure the coming year will be a lucky one, at midnight instead of kissing someone, you should eat 12 grapes in rapid succession.
In Britain: On the first day of the month when speaking to someone, the first words must be the word “rabbit”, or “rabbits”, or “white rabbits”, or any combination of these. This provides the speaker with good luck for the whole month. My mother instilled this in her three children and we all said it until she passed away. What fun it was if you were the one who got the words out first!

Wherever your travels take you, the key to having a good time lies in your attitude and willingness to learn. Be respectful, polite and sensitive. Remember that while you are in a different country the only contact and insight into your country may be the impression you leave behind.

Written by: Joan Niemeier