How to make ‘Cultural Awareness’ an essential part of your travel toolkit
January 9th 2020
Cultural awareness and an open mind ready to be blown; Ermmmm … that wasn’t on the list!
Well, it should be! And not just as an after-thought, slung into the bottom of the bag, only to be taken out on your return and hidden at the back of the top shelf, half embarrassed, and quickly forgotten.
In order to make the most out of each and every travel experience, this is an item that is evergreen, will easily fit in your hand luggage -assuming there is a desire to make space for it and to make adjustments to how you travel based on what it reveals- and will act as a secondary style of ‘passport’ to open up the range of opportunities and experiences you are able to have simply by utilising core concepts of respect, awareness, positive curiosity, and a willingness to share your views on the world with the people you meet in the spirit of shared learning and understanding.
There is a multitude of aspects to consider under the heading of ‘cultural awareness’ and of being culturally sensitive. So rather than trying to ignore or downplay the differences in order not to have to engage with them and risk feeling overwhelmed or out of your depth, here are several areas with which you can start to have an honest internal conversation about, or do some research on, to equip yourself for your travels.
Language – Learning the basics is more than just a practical means of getting your needs met. It is a way of offering your time, effort, and your respect to your host culture by meeting them on their cultural terms. There is something emotionally moving for people who are conscious of English as a world dominant language, hearing people make attempts at their cultural language, which is therefore being given its deserved importance. It may be easier to use English and it may at times feel uncomfortable to haltingly stumble through interaction in a language you don’t know, however, the joy it can give others really is priceless.
Manners – Learning how to eat with one’s hand. Learning how to pass food, or what to leave on the plate to indicate you have eaten enough. Learning how to accept or refuse gifts and offers of help and the implications of these interactions. All these behaviours provide insights into cultures and the possibilities of different life experiences. Knowing how to navigate these situations is a worthwhile learning curve, even as that learning is often derived from making mistakes.
Gestures – Gestures, symbols, and socio-cultural references are not the same in all places. What may mean one thing in one place does not have the same connotation in another. Remain open to not understanding the cultural backstory and still being able to flow with what is appropriate where you are.
Clothing – Considering what is acceptable to wear can be an anxious issue, especially when related to age and gender. An initial consideration may be of the location. Is it a religious site? A tourist site? Are you meeting cultural elders? Consider if the clothes draw attention in some way? Is that what you intend? Researching the specific place you will be visiting and looking at what the other people in the region wear when engaged in different activities is a good place to start. Likewise, knowing how you need to present is important. Are you a nondescript tourist or a very visible professional? What is appropriate and how to convey your role can be very culturally significant.
Personal displays of affection and personal proximity – Travelling with a buddy, partner, or significant other can be a really interesting way to see different cultures. From the chance to discuss experiences to increased feelings of safety or confidence which open up opportunities, it can be a very affirming experience. It can also be an area of accidental miscommunication in different cultures. There can be a danger of feeling like there is a bubble around us when we travel with someone who is culturally similar to us and we can unwittingly behave in ways that are usual for ‘home’ and yet unacceptable in our current environment. Being aware of other people’s personal space and of how to be seen physically interacting with people we know well as well as those we are meeting for the 1st time, is key to avoiding these miscommunications and keeping our trips and interactions positive for everyone.
Religious, Social and Political – From being in a country that necessitates keeping particular tattoos covered to understanding the impact of the political systems on different groups of people – this is an area with a massive learning curve. It is difficult to gain the depth we might wish when we visit places for a short period of time, however, this does not mean that we cannot find out some basics and consider their application to daily life in that region rather than as an extension of our own understanding based on known systems of thought.
Keeping an open mind – check it out with those in the know – namely, the people who live in the region. It is difficult to make mistakes because we are naturally concerned with behaving respectfully, and yet if we are applying the logic from our home regions it is not the case that it will naturally be relevant where we are staying, and mistakes will occur. Being open to this and quick to apologise and rectify the issue will benefit everyone. An apology doesn’t have to be an abasement of self, is a respectful recognition of ‘getting it wrong’ -which everyone does- and moving on. Having a sense of humour about these mistakes is essential to not being too personally critical.
The key takeaway from all of this is that whilst there are a lot of different things to consider there is a lot to be gained from being culturally conscious and travelling with the sort of open heart and mind that can enjoy all that this often confusing, highly dynamic, and ever-fascinating subject can provide.
It turns out that taking ‘cultural awareness’ seriously is more than just a ‘good thing to do’. It’s actually great for your understanding of yourself on a deeper level as well as smoothing the interactions you have with people and your immediate environment in the place you are currently calling ‘home’, and will stay with you long after the trip has been completed, the photos have faded and Instagram has evolved into its next iteration.