How to Be a Respectful American Abroad This Summer

If you plan on traveling abroad this summer, consider yourself lucky. Many Americans fail to take much-needed vacations, and exploring other cultures broadens your life perspective. However, when you're a stranger in a strange land, you risk unintentionally offending your hosts. 

How can you make your foreign travels more respectful? It all begins with following the golden rule and treating others as you would want to be treated. It also entails maintaining proper respect for traditions you may find curious. Here are six tips for staying courteous during your journey. 

1. Dress Appropriately 

In the U.S., few people outside of school teachers raise eyebrows at crop tops and short shorts, but some other countries follow more modest dress codes. If you plan on visiting any mosques, for example, many require you to cover exposed skin — and always remove your shoes upon entering. You may need a simple head-covering as well, but exercise cultural sensitivity. Some may consider wearing a full traditional hijab cultural appropriation, for example. 

Another example — you may want to get a pedicure if you're sensitive about your feet and are traveling to Japan! Visitors and students are required to remove outdoor shoes upon entering homes, schools and houses of worship. Read up on the traditions of the country you’re visiting.

2. Learn to Speak the Language 

No one expects you to master fluency in French before jetting off to snap a photo of the Eiffel Tower, but it helps to learn some key phrases. Native speakers appreciate your attempts to communicate in their language. Suggested terms to learn include:

  • Courtesy terms: Learn how to say please, thank you and you're welcome in the native tongue to smooth interactions and sound more respectful.

  • Directional terms: If you get lost, you may need to ask for directions. Learn how to say, "Where is the embassy or visitor's center?" Learning the terms for left and right helps, too, as does mastering the compass points of north, south, east and west.

  • Basic needs: When you're dining out, you may not correctly pronounce everything on the menu. However, you should at least learn how to ask, "May I please have a glass of water" and "Where is the restroom, please?"

3. Do Your Homework 

Before hopping aboard your flight, do a Google search to learn about the history, geography, and political and religious dynamics of the region you're visiting. This helps prevent embarrassing gaffes and serves as a starting point for conversations. The CIA offers a World Factbook that provides information about geography, politics, and people and cultures of various regions of the world. Wikipedia serves as a good starting point as well — and who doesn't love falling down a Wiki hole now and then?

4. Respect Cultural Events 

Are you visiting during a time of celebration or solemn religious observation? Even though you are a tourist, follow the rules. For example, if you're visiting Bali during Nyepi Day, the Day of Silence, you need to refrain from any spoken celebrations in public. Use this day to read or rest quietly in your hotel room. 

Avoid interfering with cultural celebrations. Observe, but ask permission before taking photographs of performers or spectators. Follow the audiences' cue — if the crowd gazes on in silence, applauding loudly is probably inappropriate.

5. Ask About What You Don't Understand

When you arrive, locate your nearest embassy or visitors' center. Program the contact information into your phone. That way, if you have a burning question about a practice you don't understand, you have someone to call. Yes, sometimes you get lucky and find a local fluent in English, but you can't count on it. 

If you have adequate fluency in the language, ask respectfully about things you don't understand. Frame your questions in a courteous context — instead of blurting out, "What on earth are they doing?" say, "That dance/ritual/practice looks interesting. Can you please tell me more about it?" 

6. Behave Like a Good Houseguest 

Going back to the golden rule, ask yourself how you would expect a good houseguest to act in your home. Would they leave trash everywhere or clean up after themselves? Obviously, the latter, so pass on littering — and never touch or deface monuments in any way. Treat statues, natural stone formations and other sites the way you would fine china on display in a hosts' dining room cabinet. 

If you’re staying with a host family, ask them what they do and do not want in their house. Everything from religious dietary restrictions and preferences to culturally taboo trinkets may be fair game for them to ask you to refrain from, and it is their home, after all. As long as they are being respectful and fair, strive to follow their requests as much as possible so they can feel comfortable having you there.

Respect the ecology of the region as well. If visiting natural areas, stay on marked trails to avoid trampling native flora. Stay at an eco-friendly hotel if budget allows. If not, follow good practices like hanging up your towels and taking your own reusable water bottle. Just because you're on holiday doesn’t mean you have to waste resources. 

Behaving Like a Respectful American Abroad 

Americans often get a bad rap for poor manners when traveling to foreign countries, but you need not add to this. By following a few easy tips, you can hopefully benefit from international travel while leaving behind a good impression of U.S. citizens!

Article by Kate Harveston