THE BLOG

How to Travel in Tune With Local Culture

08/03/2016 10:29 GMT | Updated 08/03/2017 10:12 GMT

"I'm just being a bit weird - what's wrong with that?"

I heard this statement from my travelling companion on a train in Tokyo after she had committed a trio of faux pas: using the reserved seating, playing loud music on her phone, and then complaining even louder about my attempts to shush her. This behaviour would be considered rude in most places, but on packed Japanese trains, silence is particularly golden. I could feel the disapproving stares burning on my back, but my friend was convinced there was nothing wrong with just being a bit livelier than everyone around you.

When we stepped out of the train, she skipped around the station asking for directions - in English, no less - and was surprised to see that no one was willing to help us out. I wasn't.

Being able to read the atmosphere around you is a valuable and difficult skill to master, and this is doubly true when you're travelling abroad. Cultural norms are often subtle and slippery creatures, but as a traveller, your job is to suck it up and adapt. Most of the time, it's not even all that difficult. I'd argue that it's even at least a quarter of the fun of travelling - culture includes so many of the more colourful and enjoyable parts of being human. It's exciting to learn about new tasty foods and how to eat them, new styles of dress and how to wear them, new music and how to appreciate it, and new kinds of people and how to interact with them.

However, the bad rep that haunts every tourist comes from the tendency of travellers to stop at the more frivolous aspects of cultural awareness, if even that. As a tourist, you don't risk coming off as annoying or offensive primarily because your grip on chopsticks is a bit shaky, but for all the ways you as a puzzle piece has not quite been shaped by the society that you are visiting. The further away you are from your own culture, the more obvious this becomes. This has less to do with what side of the escalator you stand on and more to do with unspoken, underlying principles behind the social machinery of a particular culture that are expressed in a myriad different ways every day. While most people in most places tend to be forgiving of common mistakes, failing to stay attuned to the more subtle cultural differences of a country is more likely to be read as a lack of respect, and may even put you at risk. Mostly because, well, it is disrespectful to barge into a stranger's home and expect them to do things the way you are used to.

So why do we see this so often? The holidaymaker downing beers in public during Ramadan in Morocco and complaining to the waiter that there's no pork sausage at breakfast. The international volunteer in Cambodia patting a child on the head. The expat in Finland sitting down next to someone on the bus even though the rest of the seats are free. Honest mistakes happen all the time, but among all too many travellers, there is a prevalent attitude that because you are a tourist, you are rolling around in an insulated bubble, free from the social context around you. Who cares if you're talking several decibels louder than everyone around you? If you want to have a beer, why not? You're not forcing anyone else to drink. If you don't want to bow or kiss someone's cheek or place your hands together instead of a handshake, you can just go ahead and stretch out that hand at your unsuspecting host. You're just being a bit weird, and there's nothing wrong with that, is there?

This is how many tourists try to jam their British pieces into any jigsaw puzzle they care to visit. So why does it matter? There is an enduring expectation among some Western tourists that the rest of the world should have expert knowledge of and willingness to adapt to Western norms and customs (and most importantly, to our languages, primarily English) and be permissive and forgiving when we don't even bother to read up on local culture. Other times, people stop at the superficial details when learning about a culture. This is how we end up with cultural appropriation - the nonchalant treatment of 'exotic' elements of another culture as mere fashion accessories, to be used without regard for their real significance.

Sometimes, there simply is something wrong with 'just being a bit weird'. Many cultures are more collectivist in nature and do not prioritise the individual's self-expression over the well-being of the group as a whole. Other issues that might arise include a clash in expectations over the importance of punctuality or over the amounts of personal space and privacy that you are entitled to. As a tourist, you have to stay humble - you are a guest, and it's your duty to 'do as the Romans do', or else risk making things worse for future tourists, who will be welcomed by locals who remember you as a rude, loud nuisance.

There is no excuse for total ignorance when the Internet offers so many resources for doing a bit of research beforehand. I'd recommend Kwintessential or the FCO's Know Before You Go webpages for both country and issue-specific advice. However, nothing really beats paying attention to what people around you are doing while you're abroad, and having the grace to adjust accordingly.

Of course, mistakes are still going to happen. A lot of how we operate socially happens by instinct. I remember the bewildered look of the postman in Japan whom I had greeted with a wave and the equivalent of a casual 'morning!'. I bit my tongue as I realized that he had started by greeting me with the more formal version, while my response had been far too informal for a stranger, even though I just wanted to be friendly.

These things happen, and often, you can laugh about it afterwards. What matters is that you put in the effort. This will make your stay in another culture more enjoyable both for yourself and for the locals around you. After all, you're not travelling just to have everything like it is back home but with better weather, are you? That would just be a bit weird.