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Manners travel, cultures don’t

April 14, 2011

As many of you know, I travel frequently.  I’m often flying up and down the West Coast, across the country, or, increasingly outside of the US speaking to educators, professionals, parents and students about the importance and impact of social skills, character, and civility. My recent travel to the Bahamas to present to various groups including a joint group of Bahamas’ Rotary Presidents is what inspired me to write this post.

Now, before I get into the meat of the discussion, let me say that I’m going to do something here that I normally shy away from: I’m going to make some general observations.  Generalizations tend to cause trouble because, no matter how carefully or diplomatically you say something, when you apply an observation to a general group, someone gets hacked off. So, I will get that out right up front: I’m sure this is going to offend someone and I’ll get comments like, “You’re saying EVERYONE is like this and it’s just not true.”  For the record, I am sharing my observations — what I personally saw. I’m not saying everyone is like this; just too many of the people I happened to see. And, that’s what inspired me to write this because I know it’s not an isolated case.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s continue, shall we?

On this particular trip, I spent about 5 days in the Bahamas, in Nassau.  Now, for many people, it happened to be Spring Break. There were many families, couples, young people about in addition to people there to conduct business, like me.  When I’m out and about, I tend to watch people. I really do like people, and I like to see what they do, if they’re having a good time, what their overall demeanor is. But what I observed again on this trip about many of my fellow American citizens really disappointed me: when they travel abroad, they bring their attitudes with them.

Too many times, I saw American travellers behaving in a less-than-decent manner, particularly towards Bahamians.  Whether it was the vacationer at the pool who was treating the waitstaff as though THEY owned the place and the waitstaff were lucky to GET their drink order, or the way shoppers treated people working in the stores with disdain, or even watching American tourists completely ignore a Bahamians smile and “good morning” greeting as they passed in the street — the message seemed to be that WE, the Americans had arrived and we were ready to be served.

Now, I have a very different attitude about “my place” when I travel. Given what I do, I certainly have a much more finely honed radar about what’s appropriate behavior or what isn’t, I know that.  I also grew up as an “airline brat,” so travel to foreign countries was just something we did regularly.  My late father had the attitude that, in order to qualify as a “real” vacation, you had to start with a minimum of five hours of flying time, and, given that all my family lived abroad, we did a lot of international travel.  I have always felt that when I travel out of the US, I am a guest in someone else’s country.  I expect that I will adapt to their cultural expectations and norms, not that they somehow have to conform to mine.

For example, consider your mode of dress when  you travel abroad.  There are some countries in which it’s just not appropriate to wear shorts so brief that — how can I say this delicately? — your nether “cheeks” are hanging out below the hem.  I don’t care how sexy or flirty you think this is, and whether it “works” in LA…it doesn’t work in your host country, so it’s offensive if you dress this way. Same with the way you might treat service staff in a hotel or resort.  Yes, it is their job to provide you good service, to take care of your needs. But, it is not their job to be talked down to or to be treated like lesser citizens because they are in a service industry when you might be a fancy, big-wig back home. I can guarantee you that you will be much more welcome if you remember in whose “home” you are right now, and treat those who belong their with courtesy, consideration and civility than if run rough-shod through their streets. There is a reason the phrase “you can spot an American by his manners” was created. It wasn’t meant as a compliment.

As I said earlier, this doesn’t apply to everyone, and I’m not here to get all “high and mighty” about travelers wanting to get away and have a good time. That’s not the point. But, when you are abroad, be aware of what is appropriate and accepted in the culture you are visiting, and try to be flexible. As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It doesn’t read, “When in Rome, look for the first source for a decent American hamburger, and complain loudly when they don’t produce it in 20 seconds or less.” People do things differently in different cultures…if you want to “have it your own way,” then stay home. When you travel, remember to take your manners with you — courtesy, consideration, respect are universal; they do not require translation.  You’ll have a better time while you’re there, and will be welcome back for more than just your American dollars, of that you can be sure.

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