You may not realize it, but when you travel abroad, you become an automatic ambassador for America. Leaving the country for a gap year adventure is thrilling, but it’s important to note how your behavior abroad can impact you or the people of your host country. Taking steps to be respectful will not only help you have a positive international experience, but it will contribute to a better global reputation for all Americans! Here are some simple things to remember:
This goes for men and women. Different regions of the world have different norms, so it’s important to dress with this in mind. For women in East Africa, showing your thighs is a big no-no, whereas in Catholic areas of Central America, it’s a woman’s shoulders that should be covered. In the Middle East, men should avoid wearing shorts (despite the heat!). The best course of action is to look around you and dress as the locals dress. And ladies -- err on the side of the conservative, it will earn you more respect and better treatment universally.
Give gifts or sweets to children.
It may seem like a nice gesture, but giving gifts to children only encourages begging and perpetuates the notion that Westerners are sources of free handouts. I worked with one gap year student who made the mistake of giving candy to kids the first day of his volunteer placement in Tanzania, and was quickly dubbed “Bwana Pipi” (Mr. Candy) and persistently hounded for the following five months. It is fine, however, to give a small gift to your homestay family as a gesture of thanks.
Avoid any protest or demonstration in a foreign land. These events can quickly escalate into dangerous situations. Handle any political conversations with care or steer clear of them altogether. Remember to check the U.S. State department website for travel advisories in the country you’re traveling in.
Presume American culture is superior.
This is not something that people usually say out loud, but travelers can sometimes subconsciously act on the assumption that the American way of life or Western thinking is somehow better than other cultures. While other countries glamorize certain aspects of American culture, they certainly wouldn’t be interested in adopting it outright. Keep this thought in mind when you are working closely with locals or grassroots organizations.
Take pictures of people without permission.
In certain cultures, picture-taking is taboo. In other places, children are photographed so often by tourists that they are taught by parents to say, “No photos!” in English. Be courteous and ask for a photo before taking one. Some people may choose to decline but more often you’ll get a big smile for your photo album.
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Make an effort to speak the local language.
My rule is to memorize the words for “hello”, “thank you,” and “goodbye” in any country I travel. That is the minimum, but it shows that you are making an effort and locals really appreciate it. If you have the time, spend your first few weeks in a country at a language school. Language schools allow you to meet other travelers and ease your way into another culture all while getting a head start on communication.
Research your host country.
A good guidebook is essential reading before any trip. It will not only tell you what sights to see and experiences to have, but it will also inform you of the cultural norms and taboos of the country. For example, did you know it is very rude in Buddhist countries to touch the top of a child’s head or that in some countries it’s impolite to leave food on your plate since it suggests you were not adequately fed?
Obey all local laws.
Even as an American citizen, once you are on foreign soil you are obligated to follow local laws or else incur local penalties. This even goes for minor possession of illegal drugs. Many countries face strong pressure from the U.S. to get tough on drug trafficking. One of the ways these countries prove that they are getting tough on drugs is to give especially harsh sentences to foreigners to make an example of them.
Buy souvenirs and hire tour operators that support the local economy.
Many areas of the world thrive on their tourism industry, so do your part by keeping your money in the community. One way to do this is by purchasing fair trade goods. You can often visit workshops and meet artisans making gorgeous handicrafts, like hammocks in Nicaragua, rugs in Morocco or silk in Southeast Asia. If you are going on a tour, look for companies that employ or are run by locals.
Take every opportunity to immerse in the culture.
If you are lucky enough to live with a host family while abroad, allow yourself to become part of the family. Attending family events like weddings, funerals, and weekly religious services will deepen your cultural experience and offer opportunities you’d never have access to otherwise.
In most countries, travelers are welcomed and appreciated. You will be blown away by the hospitality shown to you while on the road. Pack your manners along with your sunglasses and you’ll be all set!
P.S. For an enlightening glimpse into what other travelers think about when they visit America, read the Atlantic’s fascinating article, “Welcome to America, Please Be On Time: What Guide Books Tell Foreign Visitors to the U.S.”