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A column on the art of traveling well
Roadwise Home

Walking on Eggshells
Paul Otteson

Special thanks to Claudia Sauerborn, who sent in the following comments:

"As a travel fanatic I use and love hostel.com a lot. But what I am missing and what I want to argue in regards to your article "Unbeaten Paths", is that there ARE obligations when someone travels. A traveler has serious obligations, responsibilities and restrictions to the freedom of his or her behavior in relation to the people he or she meets, especially when one travels in other cultures. One has to get information about cheap fares, hostels, info about places etc., but also how to behave and therefore respect the people he or she will meet. After travelling extensively for the last five years, and living in another culture, I learned mostly how not to behave from people who thought that being in another culture justifies to act in a way that is not even allowed in their own country. I would like to see on the website information about cultures and the appropriate behavior one has to follow when visiting these cultures."

(Read last month's column, The Unbeaten Path)

We may try to take her up on the suggestion and develop a sort of 'cultural primer' to go with our national information pages, though it's a big project and will take time that isn't available at the moment. For now, I offer the following piece, largely excerpted from The World Awaits:

The Challenges of Foreign Cultures

"That which a group of people do that's different from that which other groups of people elsewhere on the Earth do is their culture. If everyone on the planet does the same things in the same ways, it's not culture anymore, it's social or human. That's about how I see it. Walking is human. Talking is social. Eating with only the right hand is cultural. All but the most insulated travelers will have experienced several other cultures before their first big trip. They can be as close as next door or the TV screen. They are only secondarily related to national boundaries. Every city of size is a veritable buffet.

The term "culture shock" owes its existence to a very real phenomenon. When you insert yourself into a situation where people are working with an entirely different set of habits and expectations regarding human behavior, it can be a jolt. I once angered a gypsy and had no idea why. Every word or gesture I used to calm the situation inflamed him further. Finally, in exasperation and fear, I turned and strode away. I expected laughter or a continuing tirade to follow. I got only silence. I guessed later that he thought I'd included him in a photograph I was taking and he was either angry or wanted money—but I don't know for sure. I was culturally adrift at the time.

It's hard to predict how the experience of a foreign culture might affect you. Often, it's the events that occur in a cultural context that shape your feelings for the culture itself. If you are frustrated by an inefficient clerk, frightened by an angry voice, sickened by the local cuisine, irritated by a hustler, or robbed by a pickpocket, you may sour on a culture you otherwise would have embraced with pleasure. Still, in general, you can assume that the more exotic a culture—the more different from home—the greater the challenge of the experience.

If you accept the challenge of the exotic, how might you meet that challenge? Two broad attitudes shape most people's responses. Those of you who fall in one camp may find it hard to believe there's another. I did, until slapped in the face repeatedly by examples experienced, of course, while traveling. Here are the two sides in a nutshell:

1 - When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

2 - Be yourself.


Camp 1 - How could you be so insensitive and tactless as to flaunt your Americanness in the faces of another culture? It is perfectly possible for you to find out what your hosts find acceptable or offensive and to behave accordingly. By deliberately adhering to the manners of home, you arouse suspicion and hostility, alienating the people you should be meeting as equal members of the human family. When you are a guest in the homes of the world, it is simply right that you should respect the rules of the household. You disgrace your own culture when you don't.

Camp 2 - Wake up and smell the chai! I'm not some namby-pamby chameleon who changes stripes to disappear into the local woodwork. I'm me! The countries I visit are going to meet me when I arrive, not some lame imitation of them. If people of a different culture came into my home, I—as host—would wish them to be themselves so I could learn from them as well as they from me. By adopting some temporary "guidebook personality", I become a patronizing charade, like an anthropologist ingratiating herself to chimps. That is the deeper disgrace!

Consider the following list of behaviors which are seen as offensive or disgusting somewhere in the world (or are accepted elsewhere but considered offensive here!):

being nude
women showing breasts
   showing bellies
   showing knees or shoulders
   showing arms or legs
   showing ankles
   showing anything
   showing up
pointing with a finger
eating with the left hand
touching someone's head
standing too close
standing too far away
looking into someone's eyes
not looking into someone's eyes
shaking hands
not shaking hands
not shaving pits or legs
walking in front of someone
   behind someone
   next to someone
laughing aloud
showing your teeth
showing the soles of your feet
not eating everything served
not leaving something on your plate
wearing shoes
not wearing shoes
offering money
not offering money
not bargaining
saying no
asking questions that someone
   has to answer with a no
being blunt
being evasive

Some travelers will tromp through this minefield, heedless of the flak they fling. Others will research every step to avoid detonating bad feelings—a big project. What will you do? Your answer says a lot about your world view, just as the issue itself is expressive of larger global issues: national unity, ethnic identity, cultural integrity, internationalism, westernization, human rights, racial rights, women's rights, individual rights, freedom of expression, and on and on.

Extreme views are presented in my point/counterpoint example, but you'll notice that compromising the two positions is difficult. That's because situational decisions are involved. You either will or won't eat with your left hand, wear a tank top, say no, laugh aloud, or look 'em in the eye. Any compromising is done across time—now you do it, now you don't. The only alternative is to be an apologist, justifying yourself in some way every time you're forced to choose or offering a running analysis of the whats and whys of your differences.

An immensely complicating factor appears when you attempt to consider the mind of the observer or recipient of your behavior. The extremist must make presumptions about the reactions his behavior will provoke from members of a foreign culture. Will your host be insulted if you eat with your left hand, or will she feel relieved that her guest felt comfortable enough to relax and follow his normal cultural tradition—or will she care at all? If the two camps stop picking at each other long enough to think, they might realize that their own disagreement points to the reality of the differences of opinion and reaction found in all cultures.

When you choose to challenge yourself with exotic cultures, you set yourself up for vivid experience and striking memories. We humans are so capable of being delighted, why miss an opportunity? If the couple at the next table seems disgusted that you are eating with your left hand, either stop it or don't, but delight in it as another glimpse of the wonder of the world. "It's not a job, it's an adventure!"
Paul Otteson / The World Awaits / All Rights Reserved

What Claudia reminds me of is that, when all the philosophizing and preparation is completed, it's a question of how you actually engage with your planetmates—and of how you wish them to experience you. It is simply a good thing to show understanding, care, and respect wherever you go—safer too.

Happy Travels!

Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com