Cultural Sensitivity – (Not) Offending the Locals

Cultural Sensitivity – (Not) Offending the Locals

What do these two statements have in common?

  1. “Still throwing spears?”
  2. “Oh no, I might catch some ghastly disease”

Well, more than one thing actually. First, they’re classic examples of saying borderline offensive things. Second, they were both said in the same country, Australia; the first was addressed to an Aborigine, and the latter with regards to an offer to stroke a koala. And third, and perhaps most remarkably, they were said by the same person, on two separate occasions, years apart – by none other than the recently retired Prince Philip.

Image courtesy of Jamie McCaffrey

These are quite extreme examples, from a man notorious for being extraordinarily gaffe prone and culturally insensitive. Whatever your opinion on the British royal family*, though, it just goes to show that no one should be exempt from a employing little cultural sensitivity when overseas. We are all guests in someone else’s country after all.

Before I begin, one caveat: this cannot possibly be a fully comprehensive, all country guide. Each country has its own quirks that can fill a blog post by itself. Having recently returned from Mongolia, the amount of etiquette points I picked up there (e.g. never leave your bag on the floor) are numerous and almost exclusive to Mongolia. Ditto not laughing at appallingly bad karaoke in the Philippines, to give another example.

But hopefully, these are all pointers that can be applied wherever you go…

Mongolian Ger interior

Read up before you go

There’s nothing worse in travel than not really knowing anything about a country you find yourself in, bewilderdly wandering its streets and wondering what the hell is going on. Even the great Ryzsard Kapuscinski fell foul of this, showing it can befall us all. Me? Never. Well, no, that’s a lie. When I was in Zanzibar, a predominantly Muslim archipelago, during Ramadan, I rather carelessly swigged from a bottle of water in public. Luckily for me, a passer by politely and diplomatically pointed out my faux pas. If I’d taken the time to check up on this, I wouldn’t have needed to rely on the kindness of strangers to spare my blushes.

A few words of the local lingo go a long way

With English essentially being the language of the world, it can be all too easy to assume that everyone you encounter, at least in tourist areas, will speak it. And yes, it would be unreasonable and unfeasible to expect everyone to be fluent in the language of every country they visit. But believe me, taking the time to learn a few stock phrases goes a very long way. I will never forget the look on the face of a Ugandan waiter – Uganda being a country where English is widely spoken and is the lingua franca – when I thanked him in Bugandan for the coffee he brought me, which was best described as surprised delight.

Yes, their food IS the best in the world!

If a way to win someone’s heart is through their stomach, then the way to pay the ultimate compliment to a country is to enjoy its cuisine. Even if you actually don’t like it. Avoid damning with faint praise too. At one dinner in the Philippines I made the mistake of confessing my favourite meal on this particular trip had been last week in Hong Kong. The lady who had quizzed me wore a mask of subdued fury, and the gentleman next to her seemed wounded. Still, this was not as bad as the Chinese folks I climbed Kilimanjaro with, who put huge quantities of Chinese sauces in just about every meal our porters had prepared for us. Not the way to thank people who have prepared meal after meal for you in the bitter cold and at high altitudes…

Clothes

Err on the side of modesty. I’m not saying you have to dress like a Victorian and show no flesh whatsoever. Indeed, in just about every Western country you can probably leave as little to the imagination as you like (but I’m stopping short of advocating outright nudism)! But in those places where you know you might fall foul, the general rule of thumb: covering shoulders and knees will be sufficient in all but the most, ahem, hugely orthodox of places.

Politics

Stay quiet. If a local you’re conversing with goes off on one, smile and nod. Heck, politics is probably a topic best avoided with people you don’t know all together. In my recent volunteering stint in Mongolia, one (male, Italian) volunteer thought the best way to introduce himself to another (female, Australian) volunteer was to proclaim that Hilary Clinton is “a b*tch”. Another extreme example, but you get my point.

Do you have any other general tips on how to avoid offending the locals?

* For the record, not all of us Brits like the royal family. To assume we all do would be culturally insensitive, naturally!

12 Comments

  • Wendy

    August 21, 2017 at 3:06 pm Reply

    I agree, read before you go! If find it more interesting to know about the culture and place before I go. Then I can ask more informed questions and engage locals in an energized conversation. It is also good to know about the faux pas to avoid, but it can be difficult to know all of them in advance.

    • Joe

      August 21, 2017 at 3:42 pm Reply

      You can never know all of them in advance, of course. I find it helps to try and pick up some as you go along too, to supplement those you read up on beforehand. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Linda

    August 21, 2017 at 6:24 pm Reply

    Agree wholeheartedly. South Africa, my birth country, is one of those places where you can put your foot in it so easily.

    • Joe

      August 21, 2017 at 6:40 pm Reply

      Not been there, but I can imagine…!

  • Carol

    August 21, 2017 at 9:39 pm Reply

    As a Filipina, born and raised in Manila, I’m so glad to have found this: not laughing at appallingly bad karaoke in the Philippines 🙂

    PS I do appallingly bad karaoke nights!

    • Joe

      August 21, 2017 at 10:21 pm Reply

      Hahaha, me too! To me, they’re kind of half the fun of going to karaoke in the first place 😉

  • Baia Dzagnidze

    August 22, 2017 at 7:09 pm Reply

    Great post! You perfectly summed up everything! I agree with every point. It’s important to know what’s considered rude in the country you are visiting. I read somewhere that hanging your shoes on your backpack is considered very rude in Thailand. So we had it all wrapped up in a plastic bag so it touched no one when we walked in the streets.

    • Joe

      August 22, 2017 at 9:40 pm Reply

      Thank you, and thanks for sharing that Thailand tip as well, definitely a useful one for many people to know, given its popularity as a backpackers destination 🙂

  • Sandy N Vyjay

    August 23, 2017 at 3:04 am Reply

    Understanding the culture and mores of a country and being sensitive is so important. It is vital that one collects information beforehand and is prepared. Some Faux pas may be harmless and taken in good humour but sometimes this can border on the dangerous too. Nice topic for discussion and some very practical tips in the post.

    • Joe

      August 23, 2017 at 7:06 am Reply

      Thanks 🙂 The severity can vary, for sure, but always best to avoid it when you can; another cultural difference is that what may seem harmless to the visitor is actually taken very seriously by the locals!

  • Antonina

    August 23, 2017 at 8:10 pm Reply

    When I think of it after 10 years of living in India, yes, I experienced 2-3 epic fails when it comes to cultural difference. Like coming to a funeral drssed in black whereas everyone else was wearing white!

    • Joe

      August 23, 2017 at 10:16 pm Reply

      India! A beautiful country for sure 🙂 The funeral faux pas must have been uncomfortable…! But I do hope you had an enjoyable 10 years there.

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