12 tips for bridging the cultural divide

(Alison Seiffer / For The Times)
Special to The Times

A turning point in my travel life occurred Aug. 11, 1999, in the central Iranian town of Isfahan. A handful of Americans had been allowed into the country to witness the total eclipse of the sun.

As the eclipse began — it would take more than an hour to reach totality — I walked alone to Isfahan’s vast Imam Khomeini Square: an American among 50,000 Iranians.

It was like a Persian Woodstock. There were Iranians of all ages and descriptions: solemn mullahs, picnicking families and groups of students. Nearly everyone was wearing eye protectors and gazing open-mouthed at the moon-bitten sun. The place was filled with European and Arabian media.

Suddenly, there was an uproar: A raucous anti-U.S. demonstration erupted nearby. American flags were set ablaze, and fists pounded the air. The European news teams rushed in for better camera angles. At the same time, something even more unexpected happened.

Dozens of Iranians — middle-aged couples, Muslim clerics, schoolchildren — rose to their feet and formed a protective circle around me. A child took hold of my finger; a young man placed his hand on my shoulder. An older man, wearing a black turban and thick beard, leaned toward me. “You see those people?” He pointed toward the demonstrators. “They should get a job.”

This startling encounter, in a place so full of apprehensions, set my worldview on its ear. I was reminded that a single humane encounter can erase years of mistrust and preconceptions. Travelers who take a few steps off the beaten path find that the most exotic locales are not alien. They’re the homes of people much like ourselves, who have hopes and fears we would find familiar.

A Mongolian nomad is as concerned with her child’s health as an Irvine professor; a salt trader in Timbuktu, Mali, responds to a kind gesture with the same warmth as a Milwaukee sheet metal worker.

Yet many of us have become reluctant to set off and make these discoveries. For Americans hoping to explore the world, these are anxious times.

All of us who travel have become increasingly concerned with how we’ll be received abroad. The good news is that most of the world’s citizens are sophisticated enough to realize that a nation’s people don’t necessarily embody the worst aspects of their government. The bad news is Americans no longer enjoy an almost universal current of goodwill. We’re under the microscope and must re-earn the trust of people who, like many of us, rely on the mass media for their impressions.

In times like these, it’s critical we own up to an oft-forgotten fact: Every traveler is a de facto ambassador. Positive contact between American travelers and the people we meet is an amazing tonic, capable of curing ignorance, dissolving apprehensions and reminding both sides that the term “global village” transcends politics.

Here’s a list of things I try to remember while traveling. Some apply mainly to developing countries; others are as appropriate in Paris as they are in Pokhara, Nepal.

Speak up: Learn basic greetings in the language of your destination. It’s amazing how far this goes toward creating feelings of goodwill. Master polite greetings and “yes,” “no” and “thank you.” Next, learn how to count (up to 50, if possible).

The fact that you can’t say anything else or even say these things well is an advantage of sorts; it shows you respect your hosts enough to put yourself at risk. Knowing these phrases also demonstrates that you don’t assume everyone speaks English.

Spend wisely: Be aware of where your money is going so the dollars you spend benefit your hosts. Do this by patronizing locally owned and operated inns, restaurants and shops.

Dealing with local businesses improves your chances of interacting with local people, learning about the country and making new friends.

Learn the issues: Arrive with a sense of your destination country’s social and environmental concerns. An hour online or at the public library will give you a sense of the current issues. Just a little information expands our appreciation for the places we visit and our ability to talk intelligently with locals.

Don’t be greedy: Remember the economic realities of your host country. It’s easy to lose our sense of scale when confronted by strange currencies or when traveling on a budget. I’ll never forget the time a boatman in Laos tried to charge me twice the going fare — 500 kip — for a ride across the Mekong River. Then it hit me: 500 kip was less than 7 cents. I was willing to make a fool of myself over this imagined larceny.

Bargain fairly: In many parts of the world, particularly the Middle East, bargaining is a tradition and an art. In other places, including much of South Asia, merchants are so poor or business is so bad that even a tiny profit is better than nothing. Wherever you travel, try to bargain fairly and respectably. You may occasionally pay a little more than someone else — but if you pay what you think is fair, you won’t regret your purchase. The final transaction should leave both buyer and seller satisfied.

Travel taboos: Learn and respect the traditions and taboos of your host country. One should never pat a Thai child on the head, walk uninvited into a Brahmin’s kitchen or toss cigarette butts (or any trash) into a Tibetan nomad’s fire. Finding this stuff out takes some online legwork, but sources are readily available.

Bad precedents: Never give gifts directly to children. Travelers mean well, handing out pens and coins or doling out sweets (even in places where there’s no dental care). But in the mountain villages of Africa, Asia and South America, this practice has turned countless children into beggars who find the local trekking routes far more seductive than school. Give whatever you’ve brought to the appropriate parents or community leaders, and let them give out the goodies.

Respect hosts: Learn how to listen. People who have the ear of an American often feel that they have the ear of America. If you’re an American traveler, be aware that your attention and respect go a long way toward shaping the world’s view of our country.

Be open-minded: No matter the topic, Americans (especially after a few glasses of the local burgundy, beer, or raki) love to espouse our views as if they were the laws of physics. This brand of arrogance does not go over well. Along with learning to listen, successful travelers learn how to speak. Make your case, but treat even charged topics with an even temper and an open mind.

No tantrums: There are endless, inevitable frustrations while traveling. Whatever clouds might pass your way, curb your anger and cultivate your sense of humor. A light touch and a sense of humor, even in the most difficult straits, will prove infinitely more useful than righteous outrage.

Help, please? Never be ashamed to ask, directly and sincerely, for help. In 1994, fulfilling a lifelong dream, I traveled around the world without using airplanes. The journey covered nearly 30,000 miles. I touched the soil of 27 countries in nine months. The most useful thing I took with me was a single phrase: “Can you please help me?” No one, in any part of the world, ever turned a back on this simple request. Being of service and inviting others to express their own nascent kindness is what “global community” is all about.

Sense of adventure: The 12th and final “tip” is actually a bit of philosophy. It’s my favorite Kurt Vonnegut line: “Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” Think about the serendipitous encounters that have led to lifelong friendships, the “wrong” turns that have steered you right, the sudden impulses that have transformed ordinary vacations into journeys through the looking glass.

When we travel at our best, it is like a dance — and the rest of the human race is our partner.


Jeff Greenwald is the executive director of the Ethical Traveler ( and the author of several books. He is currently in Sri Lanka assisting with the relief effort for tsunami victims.