Travelers don’t usually want to offend the people living in the places they’re visiting but despite your best intentions it’s possible to piss off the locals without meaning to. As travelers, it’s often the things you don’t do that can get you into trouble and make you feel more like an invader than a tourist.
You don’t want to leave your new favorite city or country feeling guilty about being an unintentional jerk. Fortunately these mistakes made by travelers novice and experienced alike are easy to avoid if you keep a few things in mind.
1. Neglecting to Learn the Local Customs
Most seasoned travelers figure they’ll just pick up the culture through observation as they go along. While you don’t need to take an anthropology course before venturing to a new place, brush up on the local faux pas. Know the basics like not putting your feet up in front of others in some places, the difference between “peace” and this, or throwing the OK sign in Brazil for example.
2. Criticizing Home
Going to other countries and saying how much you hate where you came from without a good word to say is a quick way to get under some peoples’ skin. Some travelers think they’ll endear themselves to the locals, especially if they’re not as well off as you, but that can make you sound demeaning, spoiled, or blind to the realities around you. If you don’t appreciate where you are from it’s hard to appreciate where you’re going.
3. Bringing Up Sensitive History
Learning more about a nation’s history is a good way to learn about a culture before you encounter it yet doesn’t mean locals interpret events as you’ve read them. It’s best to listen to the locals talk about war, politics, and national figures as they bring it up rather than dictate. Use your best judgement when asked your opinions but be mindful of local sensitivities and remember expressing some views (for locals and foreigners alike) may even be dangerous depending where you’re traveling.
4. Not Going Along With It
One of the best ways to adapt to a culture is to immerse yourself in it and go with the flow. Don’t resist bargaining, thinking it’s only done when someone is trying to rip you off, or get upset by varying personal space around the world. Being invited to someone’s home for a meal is a gesture of respect anywhere in the world, be sure to take a bite of all the food. Going along with the flow begins with what I mentioned in above: knowing what the customs are to go with the flow to.
5. Assuming It’s All The Same
A surefire way to piss off a local is to say that their (country, culture, people, etc.) are “basically the same” as somewhere else. The more you travel the more you realize how similar we all are – still the Norwegians aren’t just Swedes living in a different country. Customs also differ regardless of physical distances; don’t assume a nearby town is as liberal as the beach resort you are staying at so dress and act appropriately.
Other Potential Offenders
- Not knowing any of the local language – This varies but a traveler should always learn these 6 basic words: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes, no. Here’s one of the fastest ways to catch up on the local tongue.
- Treating locals like 2nd class citizens of their own country – Don’t talk down to anyone or be the all-knowing traveler.
- Not trying some of the local cuisine – Yuck, gah, gross, and reactions like these at first sight or smell limit your experience as a traveler as well as offend. Give it a try, you might like it.
Don’t Get Offended Yourself
In every new place you visit there will be customs you are unaccustomed to, individuals who give the locals a bad name, and travelers who’ve made these mistakes above potentially giving you a bad name! If you’ve done your basic research and committed yourself to immersing just a bit while respecting the locals, you won’t be likely to offend anyone. Some rules that apply globally: be kind, thoughtful, and open-minded.
Best of all you’ll end up being a good ambassador for other travelers but your fellow compatriots back home as well.
This is an updated version of a post I originally shared for a now-defunct travel blog in 2009.