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How to Be Safe and Culturally Sensitive When You Travel

For most free-roaming travelers, some of the things we take for granted are luxuries in many parts of the world. The right to speak our minds, to make innocent mistakes, to travel freely and to be judged fairly under the law are not to be assumed everywhere.

woman in burma myanmar

Nonetheless, there is beauty, understanding and value to be found when visiting pretty much any place on Earth -- and potentially a lot to learn by visiting countries and cultures that are less open than our own. If you are considering travel to a culture very different from yours, there are many things you can do to keep yourself safe while allowing you to experience as much of the place as possible.

1. Avoid drawing attention to yourself.

If I had to sum up this article in a single sentence, this would be it. When traveling in places with strict laws or standards of conduct, try to avoid behaviors that draw attention to you. If you blend in, you are far less likely to be singled out. This applies not only to how you speak and behave but also to what you bring with you, such as expensive cameras, smartphones, jewelry and watches; all have the potential to attract attention to you as a (relatively) wealthy outsider.

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2. Remember that it's not just about you.

One important consideration is that restrictions on speech and behaviors apply not only to you but to the locals as well -- so if you insist on discussing sensitive topics, you could be putting your hosts, guides and people you meet into an awkward or even dangerous position. Even if you leave (or get kicked out of) the country, they have to live there and face any consequences.

3. Do your homework.

Given the complexity and sensitivity involved, it is essential to get online and do some rigorous research, starting with the website of the U.S. State Department (or your own country's equivalent). See our story on travel warnings and advisories for links to several of these agencies and advice on how to interpret their advice.

Good old-fashioned guidebooks also typically have a thoughtful section or two about local culture, taboos and things to watch out for.

I have found it useful to cross-reference multiple opinions when researching. For example, I saw one website that said to never, ever wear a bikini in the Maldives, while other sites showed photos of people comfortably wearing bikinis on vacation in the Maldives.

Additionally, one region of a country might be tolerant or even permissive, while another is less so (you might see a difference in behavioral standards between big cities and rural areas, for example). Or you might go to a resort where you can dress and behave casually, while outside the resort very different standards apply. Even here in the U.S., going into a Wawa in a bathing suit on the Jersey Shore is pretty common, but doing the same thing a few states inland might get you turned away.

Your research might turn up all kinds of issues. Perhaps taking photos of locals is considered offensive, or the country has rigid blasphemy laws against certain types of speech. Knowing these ahead of time will help you avoid blundering into an uncomfortable or even illegal situation.

4. Dress carefully.

The easiest tactic you can employ to blend in and avoid causing offense is to dress modestly and simply, and if possible in a similar way to those around you. This is not to say that you should dress in traditional Muslim garb if you are not a Muslim, but you should certainly dress differently in Saudi Arabia than you would in Daytona Beach.

In general, if you pack neutral clothing -- not too flashy, not too skimpy, not too colorful, without slogans and commercial messages, etc. -- you can't go wrong. When in doubt, err on the side of dressing conservatively.

Some simple guidelines:

- Skip tank tops and other clothing that exposes a lot of skin.

- Dress respectfully in houses of worship and other religious places. (A shawl or scarf can be useful to cover your head and/or shoulders in places where this is required.)

- Skip clothing with political or overt cultural references, or with potentially inflammatory language ("all I got was this stupid T-shirt").

- Consider carefully which valuables you need to take.

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5. Keep your wits about you.

Staying alert to your surroundings is an important skill anytime and anywhere you travel, and even more so in countries where you may be slightly out of place in some way. Be wary of alcohol and drugs, as getting intoxicated can open you up to trouble you don't need and won't be able to handle in an impaired state.

glasses of beer

6. Follow the rules and moderate your behaviors.

If there are rules or laws regarding curfews, restricted areas, photography and forms of expression, follow them. In many cultures, habits you're used to at home are less acceptable and can create problems, as with drinking alcohol above.

Rules you might run into: no drinking in public, no smoking during Ramadan, no photos of military installations or personnel, no public displays of affection and no political expression of any kind.

7. Choose your words wisely.

Put some thought into both what you say and how you say it. Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person has gotten many travelers into hot water.

Some locals may want to draw you into discussions about religion or international politics; if this happens, you will want to think on their motives and try to read their body language to determine if they are being confrontational or not (see "Keep your wits about you" above).

If you feel comfortable proceeding, you might find some of these conversations to be very fruitful, but it's best to start slowly. Consider lightweight or even indirect questions like asking whether the person has visited your country or whether there are any upcoming religious holidays. If you feel uncomfortable, change the subject or excuse yourself from the conversation as needed.

More simple guidelines:

- There is a reason the old saying not to talk about religion, politics or money has endured for so long; it will serve you well here.

- Skip exclamatory or inflammatory words, particularly those with religious implications ("Oh, my God!" for example).

- Just tone it down; common sense goes a long way in cases like this.

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8. Don't do obviously stupid stuff.

This should go without saying, but here it is anyway. Engaging in vandalism, taking daring or potentially disrespectful selfies, wandering around unfamiliar neighborhoods after dark, having and using illegal drugs, and engaging in otherwise risky behavior is just asking for it. You can easily get yourself and people around you into difficult situations through mere bad judgment. If you know better, do better.

9. Ask someone.

If you're not sure whether you can go inside a place of worship, or if you can take someone's photo, or if your attire is appropriate, ask someone. There are many who can help; try folks at the front desk of your hotel, tour guides, people working at the local visitor center or fellow travelers who know the location better than you do.

10. Know whether your situation poses specific risks.

Not all types of travelers are welcomed equally in all parts of the world. Single-sex or interracial couples could be denied lodging or face harassment (or worse) in many cultures, while women traveling alone may feel more at risk in some places than in others. Of course, some of these situations can be an issue even in societies we often view as more open or tolerant. As noted above, it's up to you to research these issues before you go and take appropriate precautions.

What advice would you offer to travelers visiting places where speech or behavior is restricted? Do you have first-hand experience to share? Let us know in the comments.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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