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Five Ways To Responsibly Approach Foreign Cultures While Traveling Abroad

By Danielle Dorsey

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Netflix’s new show Extreme Engagement has received intense (and well-deserved) criticism from viewers who accused the show’s creators of disrespecting the cultures they were filming. The show centers around an engaged Australian couple who are hoping to glean wisdom from various cultures that approach marriage and commitment in different ways. While the premise might sound promising, the execution fell short, with the pair constantly complaining and judging the cultures that were kind enough to take them in. The show unwittingly highlighted what not to do when engaging in culturally-driven travel.

Next time you’re eyeing a new travel destination, keep these tips in mind so you can be sure you’re engaging with local cultures in a thoughtful and responsible manner: 

1. Be open-minded to other ways of life 

Part of the problem with Extreme Engagement is the couple’s insistence on centering their culture even though they’re far from home. Understand that what you consider “normal” might be completely foreign to the culture you’re visiting. Keep an open mind and know that even though these customs might be unfamiliar, they’ve sustained the local community and hold significance to them. This might mean that you dress a little differently than you would in your day-to-day life or try foods that don’t look appetizing at first glance. At the very least, locals will appreciate your willingness to adopt their customs and you’ll have more stories to tell. 

2. Research common phrases and customs

One of the most annoying things a tourist can do is make the assumption that locals understand and speak their native tongue. Look up local greetings as well as how to say please and thank you, ask for directions, and order at a restaurant. It’s also a good idea to look into local dining etiquette. For example, in Japan, slurping is a customary way to show the chef that you appreciate the food. In India and some parts of Africa, it’s considered unclean to eat with your left hand. Making an effort to adapt to local customs will make you feel like you’re truly immersed in the culture. 

3. Support local communities 

When it comes to remote destinations, it can be difficult to arrange tours and plan your itineraries ahead of time. Travel guides are often written by other travelers, meaning that they’re more likely to promote tours, restaurants, and activities that include a website and phone number, which sometimes excludes locally-owned businesses.

Be flexible and book tours upon arrival to ensure that you’re supporting the local community. Opt for food stands and mom and pop restaurants to get a taste of local cuisine. 

4. Get permission and pay locals for photos

It’s normal to want to document your vacation, but remember that locals are not props to liven up your photos and be sure to ask for permission before shooting your shot. 

Before taking a photo, it’s a good practice to ask yourself if it would be appropriate to take the same photo at home. For example, would you take a picture of children you don’t know playing in your neighborhood? Probably not, and especially if you didn’t secure their parent’s permission beforehand. 

When possible, tip people for their participation in your photos, especially if you plan on selling them. 

5. Respect the land by leaving it where it is 

Sometimes it can be tempting to sneak a rock or seashell in our carryon as a way of taking our travels back home with us. It may seem insignificant, but imagine if every tourist followed that example. It would completely change the landscapes of the places we’re traveling to. A better way to support the local community is by purchasing souvenirs. Remember, you’re a visitor on these lands and it’s pretty presumptuous to take something that isn’t yours. 

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Danielle Dorsey

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