I still cringe when I think of some of the faux pas I’ve committed over the years in Japan. I’ve said the wrong thing, sat in the wrong place, worn the wrong clothes, given an inappropriate gift, and so on. Most of the time I had no idea I was doing something wrong, and it was excruciating to later learn about my mistakes. Most of them were things I should have known to do differently, or that only a little bit of research would have prevented. I have learned from them though, and think I have become a better traveler and tourist because of those errors.
Here are some of my tips for how to be a better tourist and get the most from wherever you visit, whether it’s across country, a location half-way around the world, or one of nature’s masterpieces:
- Learn some of the language: While you don’t need to become fluent to visit where another language is spoken, you can learn and use simple phrases, greetings, and other words rather than expecting everyone to speak English to you. Being able to communicate even a little in the local language can go a long way, and shows a genuine respect for another culture.
- Shop and eat local: Don’t make your destination come to you. Be adventurous and try some of the local cuisine, and not just in “name” restaurants. Let locals recommend their favorite eating places. Do your research ahead of time and find out what dishes or sweets sound interesting and that you think you’ll enjoy. And if you try them and don’t like them, so what? At least you tried. Take yourself off the beaten path and go shopping where locals do, from markets to department stores to mom & pop shops. Haggling is expected in some countries, and can be fun, but be sure you know the local “rules” before you start.
- Wear acceptable clothing, and follow dress codes if necessary: I couldn’t understand all the stares I got one autumn day in Japan when I wore a light, summery dress because it was hot. I discovered later that in Japan you dress appropriate to the season, not the temperature! Shorts, sleeveless shirts or other casual dress are often not allowed or inappropriate for both men and women when visiting religious sites or places of worship throughout the world. Be yourself, but find out what’s appropriate before you go.
- Pay attention to local customs: Another faux pas I once committed in Japan was eating while walking down the street. Nope. If I’d been paying attention I would have noticed that while people eat outside, they’re never walking at the same time. Simple cultural rules about things like forming or not forming lines, taking off your shoes, counting or not counting your change can all be different depending on where you are. Be careful too when using hand gestures or taking selfies – you could be doing something insensitive, insulting or downright rude depending on your location.
- Be ready to answer questions about yourself: We discovered on our trips to China that locals could be very direct when they wanted to know something. After we got over the initial shock of some of their questions, we answered them as best we could without giving away what was to us private information. As interested as you might be in the place you’re visiting, people in other countries are curious about you as well and it’s up to you how much you want to share. I think there’s going to be a very good chance coming up that Americans abroad will be asked about our incoming president, and what they think of him.
- Respect Mother Nature and the rules: It was frankly shocking last year how many times we noticed people paying no attention to the signs posted around the Grand Canyon, rules that were there for both safety and to preserve the canyon. The past few years there have been several insensitive and anger-inducing examples of vandals who have irreparably damaged sites in the natural world, from defacing national parks with acrylic paints to damaging fragile natural wonders (i.e. Duck Rock in Oregon) to carving names for selfies and destroying views for others. It’s common sense that whenever you visit natural sites, monuments and national parks ask that you follow posted rules – they exist for very good reasons. Don’t feed the animals, leave trash, go or climb where it’s prohibited. Stay on the path if requested to do so, and recycle and reuse as much as you can. Don’t remove or move plants or rocks. Leave a place better than you found it – if you see trash, pick it up!
- Don’t compare everything you see or do to how it’s done back home: This is my biggest pet peeve whenever I travel – there is always someone who complains that “this is not how it is back home.” The reason you’re traveling is because you wanted to get away from home and experience something different, so enjoy the difference! Ask questions, try new things, and give yourself a chance to learn something from wherever you go. It’s travel, not a permanent relocation.
Travel is a powerful way to experience different cultures and natural wonders, meet interesting people, explore different customs, and generally expand your mind. Getting the most from your travels, and not being seen as one of “those” tourists is as simple as showing respect for another place and other ways of doing things and using common sense and good manners. In other words, be the best example you can of your own culture!