Causing offence to the locals is a constant worry for some travellers and pretty much a calling card for others. The shame is it’s just so easy to avoid…
One topic that comes up quite a bit in discussions of tourism is that of local customs, and how much – and how exactly – the traveller should try to avoid contravening them. The thing is, I think it’s a bit of a funny debate. Anyone who’s aware that it even exists is probably doing more than enough already to avoid landing themselves in hot water while, conversely, staying on the right side of local sensitivities generally requires such simple basic courtesies that pretty much the only way to cause serious offence is to act like you’re completely clueless.
Take, for instance, the French tourists charged with sacrilege for taking photos of themselves pretending to kiss a Buddha statue in a Sri Lankan temple. I don’t think you need an awful lot of background on Buddhism, or Sri Lanka, or Sri Lankan Buddhism, to realise this is probably not on. Maybe Buddhism – or chubby old Buddha himself – is just seen as cuddly by Westerners, but who in their right mind would go into a church and do that to a statue of Jesus?
Local customs can be novel, intricate and unexpected, true enough, but it seems to me this is one case where the devil isn’t in the details. Failure to follow very precise local habits – offering a handshake where a bow is expected, or bowing but doing so incorrectly, or to a woman when only men are bowed to – is more likely to elicit giggles than howls of outrage.
The kind of behaviour likely to cause offence is almost always the big dumb obvious stuff like going topless on the beach or getting drunk in public in conservative, particularly Muslim, countries, going into a church, temple or mosque in shorts or skimpy clothing – plenty of which might be looked down on back home anyway.
And that’s the real shame of it. The efforts of the many conscientious travellers are too easily outweighed by knuckleheaded behaviour it’d take a second’s self-awareness to avoid.
You don’t have to be far from home (in cultural terms) to cause terrible offence and terrible trouble if you’re the kind of idiot prone to acting that way – ask the American backpacker whose first couchsurfing experience was being woken in the middle of the night by his host’s Aussie guest ploughing butt-naked through a set of glass doors to pee off the balcony.
Now where is that ever okay?