Don’t be ignorant of cultural norms if you’re travelling

You’re an embarrassment when you don’t respect etiquette
By Janis McMath, Senior Columnist


The popular tourist city of Kamakura, Japan (home to the largest Buddha) issued an announcement this April to raise awareness of the cultural norm of not eating while walking. Sadly, this is not the first time a city in Japan has had to spend money to try to make tourists more aware of their cultural rules—one previous attempt was Kyoto’s 2017 etiquette guide. What an embarrassment this is for all travellers. Tourists should know the basic dos and don’ts of a country the same way a guest should be aware of the same in someone else’s home.

A respectful guest acknowledges that it is a privilege to be invited to and enter someone’s personal space and they abide by the host’s rules because they understand this. Guests also respect the host’s rules and are on their best behaviour because they want the privilege of being invited again.

Tourists should not feel entitled to enjoy the culture of a country they are entering if they don’t intend to abide by the rules that maintain that culture. It is a privilege to be let into a country as a visitor and one should be aware of that fact, expressing said awareness by making an effort to be culturally aware. It is unfair that many tourists benefit from the the fun parts of the culture while disrespecting the cultural rules—ruining the image of tourists everywhere.

There is really no excuse to not know simple etiquette. It’s not like you’re being asked to learn an entire language; picking up 10 simple no-nos won’t take up too much brain space. If you have enough money to travel, you likely have enough money for a phone and internet, which gives you unlimited access to all of that information about manners at all times. Travellers spend time researching where they will be going for the day, what restaurants they will eat at, what trains they need to be taking, et cetera. If you can research any of those things, why can’t you research what polite manners are? Many tourists take a full hour finding a restaurant to eat at; five minutes spent researching local etiquette such as not sticking your chopsticks straight into your bowl of rice (because to the Japanese it resembles a funeral rite) is easy research work in comparison.

The concern for not knowing cultural norms is not only related to rudeness either—if you don’t respect the cultural rules you could literally be ruining things without realizing. For example, many clothing stores in Japan have thin, sheet-like face masks to cover the faces of those who wear makeup in their fitting rooms. If a tourist who wears makeup does not realize that they need to put the mask on, they could ruin the clothes (according to Japanese standards) and make an employee’s life difficult.

If you have a reason to travel somewhere, obviously you have some interest and admiration for that nation’s culture. If you like a country and culture enough to visit it, you need to pay it the respect it deserves.  It is unfair that many tourists travel to countries and enjoy the culture but disrespect the norms and the people to whom that culture belongs.