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. Sex is also a topic that makes many people, particularly in more conservative circles, feel uncomfortable and is 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, are in bad taste, or mention disasters, terrorist attacks or other traumatic historical events are best avoided. You can often hear locals making jokes of this genre, but somehow the jokes aren't quite as funny and can be offensive when told by a visitor. 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.
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 in recent times. 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
In many countries beachwear is just for the beach. Avoid wearing 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 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. 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.
- 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).
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.) try to help if needed and possible. 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 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.
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.
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.
While traveling by plane may be a great adventure for some, who only indulge in it a handful of times during their life, it is quite a day-to-day fact of life for others. Air travel in the United States is about as unremarkable to middle class Americans as high speed rail is to middle class Europeans and as chicken buses are to most people in many developing countries. Over time, common rules of courtesy have developed, especially regarding the use of arm rests, overhead lockers and when it is okay to recline your seat (hint: ask first if there is even a slight chance anybody might be bothered by anything you do).
- 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.
- See also: Ecotourism
The volumes of visitors to sites of environmental significance can often threaten the environment they came to see. 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, or even bridges can get you in trouble. Some governments are distinctly paranoid and may consider such photos a threat to national security.
See Travel photography for more.
It's best to show deference to local law enforcement, as in some places they are armed and almost anywhere they have the authority to arrest or otherwise hassle you. Avoid annoying or 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.
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.
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".
In some areas, various non-government groups may also be armed and dangerous. See War zone safety.
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.