Respecting Other Cultures – How to Avoid Offending the Locals

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Tourism is often said to be the world’s largest industry, and with the number of tourists heading abroad each year in the hundreds of millions it is no surprise that tourists/travelers have a huge effect (both positive and negative) on the countries they are visiting.

It’s important to take some responsibility when traveling, so that the areas you visit may be preserved and the local culture kept intact.

Avoiding Offence

It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the customs we live by are true to that of the rest of the world. Every country in the world has their own set of cultural traditions and nuances, and what might be deemed perfectly acceptable where you live might be seen as rude or disrespectful in another country. For example, in some countries shaking hands with your right hand is disrespectful, as that is the hand you ‘go to toilet with’.

Doing some research before you arrive in a new area is often the best way to make sure you don’t upset the locals and it’ll give you some idea of what to expect. Most guide books (‘Lonely Planet’, ‘Rough Guides’, etc) will contain a short section at the start of each chapter detailing the Do’s and Don’ts of a country.

When traveling, it’s expected that there will be times when you suffer from what’s known as ‘culture shock’. This is particularly common with new travelers, and is brought about by being immersed in the unfamiliar. While it is a good idea to embrace other cultures as you go, you don’t always have to dive in head first – it’s best to take it at your own pace and one step at a time. Just because they have fried monkey brains on the menu, doesn’t mean you have to eat it!

Avoiding Offence in Religious Areas
religious templeMost cultural offences are committed by a person’s choice of clothing (or lack of it). Around religions areas (such as temples and mosques) you should be extra careful, as it is easy to offend in these places. Use your common sense when visiting a religions location and dress smartly and respectfully.

Don’t wear a hat inside and try to cover your legs (by wearing trousers and a long skirt) as much as possible. Also, most temples and mosques will require you to remove your shoes before entering.

Some Hindu temples will require you to remove all leather objects that you have on you – even including your belt.

Many cultures have different rules for men and women, so it’s important to understand the differences. For example, women aren’t usually allowed inside the main prayer hall of a mosque, whereas men are. It’s also a good idea for women to cover up their flesh (if in doubt) as many countries view wearing ‘skimpy’ outfits (even in hot climates) to be a promiscuous act.

Don’t take these rules lightly and mess around. Most locals are willing to forgive ignorance (i.e. if you wear the wrong clothing) but it is far more disrespectful if you mock their culture (or to have it look that way).

How to Take Pictures Respectfully
When traveling, it’s easy to forget that you’re visiting someone’s country where they live, as it can often seem like you’re in a surreal dream world. Think about how you would like it if people took pictures of you while you were going about your day-to-do tasks! Here are a few tips to ensure respectful photography:

  • If you want to take a picture of someone, be sure to ask their permission beforehand. This is usually fairly easy to communicate even if they don’t speak English.
  • Some people might want you to pay them to take their picture. Don’t be offended by this, and certainly don’t take their picture if you haven’t paid them.
  • Avoid taking photos of private and/or sacred events (such as funerals or cremations). This might sound obvious, but sometimes it’s hard to know when one’s taking place.
  • Don’t take pictures of people while they’re praying (especially when you’re in a temple).
  • Before taking pictures inside religions buildings, find out what is allowed to be photographed and what isn’t.

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  • Rosana

    When I was in my 20s, I was briefly in Tangiers, Morocco, dressed modestly in a below-the-knee skirt and long sleeves. As my traveling partner (a guy) and I walked down the street to join up with some Americans we knew from Berkeley, I was glad of my companion because a fair number of the local men were leering at me. I clearly looked Western.

    Anyway, then we met our old friends, a couple of hippies who were living in the city, and we all continued walking together to a restaurant a few blocks away. The guys got about half a block ahead of my girlfriend and me. But to my surprise, none of the local men stared at us. The girl was wearing low-cut culottes and a rather skimpy top. “They think I’m in my underwear,” she giggled. I was totally embarrassed to be with her!


    • Nick Smith

      Very interesting story, thanks Rosana!