The Culture Thing – when travelers & tourists misbehave


When an earthquake hit Kinabalu on Borneo last year 18 people died. For the Dusun people it was clear: The guardians of the mountain showed their wrath. A few days prior some backpackers found it very funny to take off their clothes on the mountain peak and take photos. Why not, “it’s just a freaking mountain”, one group member blazoned via Facebook a few days later. Well, this is a matter of opinion. For some, the souls of the dead are resting on the mountain on their way to heaven.

This incident almost caused a song and dance; for one Briton, two Canadians, and one Dutch it ended in front of the judge. The charge – obscene behavior in public. The sentences were symbolic but the story went around the world.

A comical episode where folks with a crazy idea bumped into a conservative society? A real sacrilege? Important is something else: feelings are hurt quickly, and the ones who consider themselves as reasonably pleasant human beings in their every day’s life want to behave the same way when traveling. Or maybe not?

On a beach in Italy with muscle shirt “yeah, bontschorno!” barking before he contributes another joke about Italians. The vacation as continuation of every day’s life, despite the annoying locals. That this is not only valid for package- and group travelers but also for allegedly sophisticated individualists is demonstrated by naked selfies in the temples of Angkor Wat and the transformation of, once quite, neighborhoods in Barcelona or Lisbon, which are now stages for excessive party weekends.

Of course the, “it is not my fault” is the norm. After all, it is not us who are behaving like this when traveling because we are normal. But this ‘normal’ can be the biggest trap.

A friendly thumbs up: in Muslim countries it is a tasteless and dirty gesture. Direct eye contact: in some Asian regions it is a sign of profanity. The Japanese Concierge smiles if a guest complains: this is not a sign of mockery but one of embarrassment. At least during vacation it is warm enough to wear shorts? For Arabian traditionalists it looks like as we are wearing underwear.

To be special is important for travel destinations. But which tour operator wants that his customers are running into a culture shock? The result is a balancing act between offering exotic destinations in regulated servings and the upkeep of standards. Standards clients don’t want to miss.

Cultural adapted products are a real success. Be it a burger in Venice, Italy served by an English speaking waiter or training courses for European service personnel in regards to the preferences of Chinese tourist groups.

Dean MacCannell (University of California) compared tourism with a theater. Travelers are the audience in front of a stage. The wish of many however, is to glance behind the coulisse. It’s ‘lifeseeing’ instead of sightseeing. Question is, can both travelers and locals endure this?

Often money beats reservation – it does not matter if the usual more conservative Maldives accept the more Laissez-faire of Western visitors or if some Western trade associations defend the Burka and Nigab in front of their governmental department.

To which extend travelers have to show any consideration towards cultural norms remains a question of faith. As long as fundamental human rights are not touched, a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to cultural interaction does not help.

Furthermore, Ethnologists don’t believe that cultural encounters have positive effects. The opposite – lacking language skills, shallowness, differences in status, and stressful situations help to amplify prejudice on both sides.

So let’s just ride straight on since everything is anyway pointless? No! There is good literature in regards to the cultural Dos and Don’ts available. These guides help to avoid dropping a brick. But it is not just that. Ideally, reading and learning about different cultures helps to become more open and aware. But be warned, not only ignorance but also disproportionate preparations prevent genuine acquaintances. The noble middle path is key.