Introduction: How to Not Look Like a Jerk While Traveling Abroad
My best friend is an avid world traveller and comes home from her journeys (Iceland, Chile, Mexico, Egypt, Russia, France, Peru, and more) with many interesting stories about coping with the unexpected. Sometimes these surprises come in the form of food or lodging conditions. Other times they come as communication issues or even your fellow American tourists, behaving in ways that make you want to claim "Uuuh...I'm from Canada. Totally not with that guy."
In this Ible I've compiled a list of key travel tips to help you not look like a jerk in a foreign land. Since some of these principles are difficult to capture in a photograph, I decided to draw up some quick cartoons --with me as your traveller icon-- to embody each topic instead. Enjoy!
Step 1: Do Your Research: Intake and Output
When I say do your research, I don't mean obvious stuff like local attractions or what temperatures to expect so you can make clothing choices. I mean really research the native culture in and around your destination so you can decide (presumably before you book) if this is really a place you want to be. How will you decide this? Simple.
Foods and Bathrooms.
Google the area's native and local cuisine.Does it sound like something you'd be excited, or at least willing, to try? If it doesn't sound like your thing, investigate how modernized or westernized the area is currently. In a worst case scenario, will they have something like McDonald's or Starbucks that you can get by with until you acclimate, feel more experimental, or move on to a different destination?
I feel that food is a big part of any trip and one should always make an effort to try unusual things. If you discover that boiled goat heads are a daily component of any balanced breakfast where you're going, and that isn't something you're willing to scarf down, weigh whether this is really the vacation spot for you. Even if you discover that you don't like these new adventuresome foods, now you know. The galapagos taught my BFF that she hates papaya --now she knows.
When investigating your lodging options, make a point of looking at photos of bathrooms when possible. You may also want to try finding out about he visitor bathrooms at any attractions you decide to visit. How similar are they to what you're used to? Can you deal with the differences? Do you need to bring your own toilet paper?
In the U.K. my parents found the "water closets" to be so compact you just barely had enough room to turn and grab the TP. This does not mean all toilets situations in the U.K. will be like that, but they are out there. In India, many places have "squat toilets", which are holes in the tiled floor instead of a raised seat like you'd see in the west. Are you willing and physically able to adapt to the bathroom culture at your destination?
Quick! Where's the Bathroom?!? Most Ible readers seem to agree that the term "toilet" will get you exactly where you want to go, but saying "bathroom" or "restroom" may be confusing.
In your potential destination, is it common to have to pay to use public restrooms? I was reminded by some helpful folks in the comments that in some countries it is very common to have to pay to use the restroom, or considered appropriate to tip a restroom attendant. For the many of us who primarily pay for things with a card these days, this would be a good reason to make sure there's cash/ change in your pocket!
Know the facts ahead of time. The last thing your inn keeper, host, waiter, or tour guide wants to hear is a big rude American "You want me to do WHAAAAT???"
*When booking a stay at a hostel, it is wise to inquire whether bathrooms are communal or uni-sex. My friend has had some surprises with that too. If you don't get a private bathroom, make sure you pack pajamas, loungewear, or a cover-up that you are comfortable walking down halls in. This may include a pair of flip flops or foldable slippers, if you don't want to go barefoot in a communal space.
Step 2: Gesticulation Considerations
If you only learn two native words I would suggest they be "Hello" (or some other greeting) and "Thank you." You'll use them often and being mindful enough to say them will prevent you from looking like a jerk.
Even if you've got your little translator pulled up on your phone, it's still possible to put your foot in your mouth without even opening it.
Many cultures have hand gestures that mean derogatory or aggressive things, and you want to make sure you aren't unintentionally flinging insults left and right just by using casual western gestures. This website has a good starter FYI list, though there are many more out there. Try googling "(your destination) insult gestures" to see if there is anything obvious you should avoid. Hand signals that are harmless in America -- like "I'm O.K."-- are not cool to do in some other places.
Pointing with your index finger is a good one to avoid. This one may be hard to suppress, especially if you're in a place with amazing sites and want to yell "OMG look at that pyramid!!" Many cultures find pointing to be rude, or too aggressive if you are gesturing toward another person. Try directing someone's gaze with an open palmed hand instead, as that is viewed as more relaxed.
Dipping into verbal language for a moment, this is a good time to bring up a very good point gleaned from the comments section. If a person you encounter on your travels does not speak english, REPEATING THE PHRASE LOUDER WILL NOT HELP! SEE HOW ANNOYING THIS IS? AND I'M ONLY TYPING. You might try slowing your speech to make your words clearer, though take care not to attach a condescending tone like you're talking to a child. That could get irritating too. Maintain a normal speaking volume and courteous tone. Focus on key words the person may recognize or try to find a sign or object you can reference. Do your part. Look at your translation dictionary or the internet for help finding the native word.
Step 3: Photo Bug
Photos are a huge part of most peoples' vacations, but taking them at the wrong time or place can make you look like a huge jerk.
Observe your Surroundings. Are there any signs asking that you please NOT take photos in the area? Be respectful of those signs because sometimes there's a very good reason (flash photography might scare wildlife, for instance). Are the other tourists taking photos in an open and relaxed manner? You may witness someone sneaking a picture in a no photo zone and think maybe it's ok for you to sneak one too. In most cases I would say don't stoop to their level. Aside from looking like a jerk, you could risk getting hauled out by security.
Observe the Tone. Sometimes the sites of most interest are not the most joyful ones. The world has some beautiful cemeteries, war memorials, temples, and burial grounds that are worth seeing, but maybe not the most appropriate places to take selfies. Are the people around you praying, meditating, or visiting ancestors? These are not your moments to have. Do not take pictures of them. I'm not religious, but I understand that these practices mean something to other people and snapping conspicuous photos is obnoxious.
Consent. Consent. CONSENT! Ask a person's consent before you walk right up to them and snap a photo. Don't make someone feel like a novelty or talk about them like they are an object. You may be surprised who knows a bit of english!
Asking consent for a photo is easy, even if you don't know the language. Lift your camera slightly and smile at the person. Maybe nod toward the camera. If they smile back and start to pose, you're all clear to take a picture. If they go wide eyed and turn away or duck behind their hands or clothing, that's an obvious no-go. Some cultures do not understand photographs, and some people are just plain shy as individuals! Respect this and move on. Try asking a different subject later, or in a different setting.
On the note of selfies, do NOT make contact with artifacts, sculptures, or other objects that you are not supposed to touch. No ducking the velvet ropes, no sneaking in through the employee entrance, and no having your friend hold you up on their shoulders so you can take a photo where it looks like you're almost touching the peen on the statue of David. To you, this forbidden touch is nothing, but there's a very real possibility you could do irreparable damage to something that is thousands --or even millions-- of years old. Consider these cringeworthy examples wherein a worker fumbled and knocked King Tut's beard off or when Ke$ha put her entitled millennial mitts all over a real Triceratops skeleton at the LA Natural History Museum. Sidenote: I am very pleased to say I know the NHM employee who schooled her on Twitter about this.
Respect the art and the history behind what you're seeing. Take photos, but take them responsibly.
Step 4: Dining Decorum
Remember our talk about boiled goat heads? Well let's just say you decided to go to that location anyway, thinking weird food situations wouldn't come up. Let's just say it has. Your gracious host shoves a plate at you that is loaded with roasted grubs, blood pudding, chilled monkey brains, or whatever. What now?
Keep in mind that politeness is very important, and you DID say you'd try new things! Try to stifle any visible signs of revulsion you may be putting out before your host decides you're a jerk. The gross thing on your plate may be considered a real treat here, and you should try to honor the gesture if nothing else. You may find it isn't gross after all.
Unless the situation is so bad that you're literally vomitous, try a little bit. You could be surprised. Have a beverage very handy in case you need to wash it down quick.
If you tried but you just can't stomach the specialty, look for familiar fillers on the table; rice, salad greens, couscous, noodles, vegetables, fruit, breads. Here's a strategy you probably used as a kid: Load your plate, mix things around, and make it appear as though everything else was so delicious that you just couldn't possibly finish all those monkey brains. *Just make sure it isn't important in this culture to clean your plate! Your host's feelings are preserved and hopefully your insides are too. If you know the area well enough, maybe you can suggest you take your host out to dinner the next time and that way you have a little more control over the menu.
Speaking of stomachs, this is a good opportunity to remind you of the benefits of Ginger Root. I always carry some ginger capsules with me when I travel. Ginger soothes your stomach, which can help with motion sickness (boats, long car rides) and digestive upset. Ginger teas or candy will have the same, though likely less concentrated, effect. Not a bad thing to have in your toiletry bag in case some food doesn't agree with you!
Step 5: Snack Stash
I highly recommend traveling with a stash of protein, fruit and nut, or granola bars. They're easy to fit in the negative space left in your carry on and should get through most customs with no problem, provided they are still sealed. Protein bars are especially helpful while you're in transit because they keep you feeling full for longer. Just make sure you drink plenty of water so you can digest the protein properly.
Having a few snack bars stashed on your person will ensure you never get weak or cranky for lack of food. Cranky can sometimes translate into "Jerk", which is what we want to avoid. If you find yourself out sight seeing and start to stress about where to get food/ what is this food?/ I don't understand how much this food costs/ is this meat being sold off the back on an un-refridgerated street cart safe?, etc., take a moment and just eat a snack bar. It'll tide you over and maybe even clear your head a bit so you can make decisions you feel good about.
These snack bars can also come in handy if you've had to do some emergency food avoidance maneuvers, as previously discussed, and need something familiar to fill your tummy.
If traveling with children, remember to get them to drink water and eat a little something now and then, even if they say they aren't hungry. My mom and I found out I'm hypoglycemic the hard way (I thought a Wendy's Frosty counted as a hydrating beverage and I was wrong). Even a few bites of snack bar can help maintain healthy blood sugar levels. If you find your kid fading, try a salty snack as they can also give a boost to someone who is dehydrated. McDonald's french fries brought me back from the brink of disaster every time!
Step 6: Pacing
Observe the pace of your surroundings. If the locals are operating at a more relaxed pace than you're used to, try to make the shift and enjoy it. That's what vacation is about, right?
I'm big on efficiency and moving slowly usually drives me crazy. However, when you remove yourself from the western "GO GO GO!" culture, you realize how crazy that attitude really makes you look.
Simply put, there's no reason to speed walk or shove your way through a tour group if the vibe is decidedly a calm one. Save your energy for a dash if you're late for your flight, or something that really matters.
Conversely, if you find yourself in a very fast paced, busy environment, be mindful of where you're going (and what you might be blocking if you just stand there staring at your phone checking FB). If you're not confident moving through a busy scene, look for a sidewalk or other "slow moving lane" option where you can go to get your bearings without looking like a total jerk. When moving through tight crowds, keep a hand on bags or camera straps to help avoid snagging.
Step 7: The Tipsy Traveller
Imbibing can also be a major part of a person's vacation. You might do so because there are unusual things to try, or because it's cheaper (in the U.K. it is cheaper to buy a beer than to buy a bottled water), or because a drink is just part of certain meals in that culture.
You should definitely aim to have fun on your trip, but getting ridiculous, sloppy drunk can make you look like a jerk anywhere. I'm not trying to poop on anyone's post-college-European backpacking plans here. There are some good reasons to keep your drinking in check.
Drink with a friend or trusted traveling companion(s).This is really more of a safety issue than anything. If you go out alone and get totally blitzed, bad things can happen. Mild bad case scenario, you get turned around outside the pub and can't figure out how to get back to your hotel. Worst case scenario, seedy locals see that you're a mess and use that to take advantage of you. I'm not going to darken this Ible with the many stories of robbery and violence that you can find elsewhere on the internet, but know that those things do happen and get informed.
Drinking with a trusted friend or group may increase the chances that at least one of you will stay sober enough to read a map, flag a cab, or drag the others back to the hotel safely. It isn't a guarantee, but I definitely advise it over solo boozing when abroad.
Try to be mindful of your intake as best as possible, and read the room. If you're getting the side eye from people, maybe it's time to drink some water. If you get too loose you might accidentally start throwing around some of those uncool gestures we talked about, or simply get labeled a buffoon tourist. It's difficult to come back from that label the next morning when you all load on a tour bus to Machu Picchu together.
Step 8: Adventure On, Jerk-Free!
Now you have the basics you need to not be a jerk abroad! If you enjoyed this, please vote for me in the Travel tips contest and contribute any additional anti-jerk tips you have in the comments below!