As travelers, we’re constantly interacting with different people, and it can be easy to not recognize how we might be taking away from local communities or perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
Being a more socially aware traveler is important because understanding and respecting other humans is important.
There’s a lot of problematic travel media you find when trying to plan or get inspired for trips, and tbh, I’m not perfect- I’ve made a ton of mistakes too. So I decided to write this piece with some of the lessons I’ve learned and things I’ve observed.
If you want to have healthier interactions when abroad, here are five things to start doing.
1. Think about the pictures you take and publish of other people
We sometimes travel for the exotic, to get away from our norms and experience new ones.
For people coming from Western countries, whose voices are dominant in travel information sharing, these pictures tend to carry the remnants of colonization and imperialism- i.e., they’re all pictures of poor brown people.
Am I talking about you? When taking pictures of other people abroad, ask yourself these questions:
- Would you take/post a picture of an indigenous person in Peru? If yes, would you also take/post a picture of rural person in Germany?
- Do the people in your pictures represent the diversity or majority of the country you’re in, or are you choosing a poorer minority in that country?
- Do you take pictures of/with strangers when you’re traveling in countries with similar wealth as yours?
- Do you ask for permission before you take a picture of someone to put on social media?
- How would you feel if someone took pictures of you, put it on the Internet, and (potentially) made money from it without them telling you?
Taking pictures of only certain communities is harmful because it propels poverty porn narratives, accessorizes human beings, and ‘otherizes’ different cultures. Like you might be subconsciously continuing the narrative that all brown people are poor, and that all poor people are brown- because all we’re seeing is poor brown people. You might be only showing rural life rather than the city life of a country- both being important with stories that need to be told, but you’re only showing one side. Plus, it’s just not fair to profit off of people without their knowledge, consent, or without giving back.
If you don’t do it at home, and if you don’t do it equally for all countries, you shouldn’t do it when you travel to particular countries.
I’m not saying that pictures of people are bad (they can be a great way to share knowledge- for example, how people traditionally dress), but I’m just saying be mindful of how you take and share them.
2. Keep geography in mind
Like, Africa is a continent with a collection of countries- not one giant monoculture country. Similarly East Asia is different from Southeast Asia, and even within a country like the US, each region has customs that are slightly different from each other.
Be mindful of when you mean to refer to a specific country vs a continent vs a region. Each one is made of completely different languages, cultures, food, and customs. When you incorrectly refer to a place, you’re taking away it’s story.
3. Empower local voices instead of taking away from them
It’s almost like getting information from primary sources instead of secondary sources. Or like when you’re in a room and people only listen to the loudest voice because it’s loud, instead of the quieter voice who actually knows what it’s talking about.
If you care about the people of a country, and their experiences aren’t getting out there- listen to and share their stories!
For trip planning, this could mean:
- Using travel writers who live(d) in that region for definitive information more often – rather than mass produced guides or people who only got to know the region superficially for a short period of time. They know the area best.
- Note: I do think there’s benefit in listening to people from your country about other countries for things that they would understand better- like visa experiences or differences in dress or culture.
- But I mean like, don’t listen to the guy who went to Italy for five days over the girl who actually lived in Italy when trying to understand Italian food, just because his story’s easier to find.
- Reading novels or poetry from local writers, watching movies by local directors, and listening to music by local musicians before your trip, to get to know the country from their perspective.
And when people ask you about your trip, in addition to all the fun stuff you drank and did, consider also:
- Bringing to light struggles that the local people face
- One example is Cuba- looking on Instagram, you’d think it’s a country all about vivid pastel walls, and talking to (unaware) people, they just say “go before it get touristy”- but in reality, did you know that local people had trouble accessing certain foods because increasing tourism keeps the prices only affordable for tourists? (and the walls are dull pastel)
- Sharing positive stories about the people or culture
- For example, there’s a lot of fear mongering about Latin America in Trump’s America, about how the countries are all dangerous and untrustworthy. Whenever Trump supporters ask me about Ecuador and want to know about like animals, I always throw in the honesty of everyone I met anyway, because it’s true and different from what they usually hear.
- Adding lessons lessons you learned from talking to people there
4. Pay attention to politics
Since politics affects all aspects of people’s lives, having even just a handful of knowledge on political issues going on will help you understand the culture better and what people might be going through- which makes it easier to form a real connection with people.
Plus, it’s another way to start learning about the country before you go- similar to reading literature and watching media like above, but this time, it’s about live issues.
Embarrassing story time:
I learned this the awkward way in Turkey and before knowing what ISIS was or about the war in Syria (hey, it was before it was in the US news, okay).
I met so many people who were affected by this conflict- without knowing that’s what they were going through. I met a ton of refugees and kept wondering “from where? why?”, and I distinctly remember complaining about unaffordable college in the US and being met with “at least your school wasn’t bombed while you were in class – I used to study engineering and now I sell souvenirs.” Yeah.
Maybe if I watched international news more, I would have said something less insensitive.
5. Recognize your travel privilege
Disclaimer: I used to be one of those people who said “anyone can travel, you just need to try!”.
In my early 20s I had $100k in student debt, two jobs, and was in school part time- but I used to travel a lot, like a new country every other month. I thought because I could do it, anyone could do it. I didn’t realize I had the privilege of flexible jobs, a flexible schedule because of school, a strong US passport, and no health issues, which all made it easy to hop around on a budget- even though I had debt and juggled so many responsibilities.
But the truth is, traveling abroad is not easy for everyone. It wasn’t until I had to move home to take care of family members all day that I realized, “wait, getting abroad can be really hard.”
- Some passports are weaker than others, which means that some people have to plan and apply for visas before their trip- and might even get denied the visa so they can’t enter the country.
- Some countries outright ban people from traveling there, just based on their culture, religion, or ethnic group (*cough* the US and the Muslim travel ban *cough*).
- Income inequality can make it hard for people to save money for leisure- no matter how much they try, a (I wrote a sassy post about this here). And some countries might be cheap to you- but are they affordable for people who actually live and work there? Can they play tourist in their home country?
- Limited job opportunities and jobs without a lot of benefits can make it so people who can kind of save, can’t spontaneously grab an airfare hack or fly on cheaper days.
Keeping what makes it easier for you to travel in mind will keep you from sounding tone deaf when you talk to people who are in a point of their lives when they really can’t travel abroad.
Anyway, those are some of the things I’ve learned so far on this path to social awareness, but I’m sure I have a lot more to learn. I hope it helps start or continue your journey too!
What do you think of these tips? What would you add? I’d love to hear your thoughts!