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Freakin' Tourists! How Not to be a Jerk When You're Abroad

Grace Lower | Aug 4, 2021

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Although it’s a beloved travel destination, the city of Barcelona has a complicated relationship with its tourists. In recent years, Barcelona’s housing costs have skyrocketed as a result of the city’s popularity. Meanwhile, its public services are spread increasingly thin. Locals bemoan the hordes of annual visitors and the messes that come with them—it’s not hard to find graffiti reading “Tourists, Go Home!” scrawled in the city’s alleyways.

When I was in Barcelona a few years back, I met my share of poorly behaved tourists. Take my afternoon at La Sagrada Familia, for instance. While exploring Barcelona’s famous basilica, I headed over to a cordoned-off prayer area for a bit of quiet reflection. Any sense of sanctity was shattered when a chattering group of twenty-somethings paraded through the area with selfie sticks and—to my horror—began taking pictures of the praying visitors nearby.

Later, when my friends and I were enjoying lunch, we noticed an older American couple arguing with a flustered waiter. The husband had ordered a fish entree and was absolutely aghast that the whole fish—head and all—had been served to him. When the waiter left the table, the couple began loudly discussing how poor Spanish service was, how unsightly the meal presentation had been, and how they would never have such a negative dining experience back home. (Cue eye-roll.)

Both of these instances were little more than a nuisance to me, but they gave me a better understanding of why there’s so much tension between locals and tourists. These issues have social, cultural, and economic implications, of course—but as travelers, we have a basic obligation to be courteous guests. Here are a few simple ways to avoid looking like a jerk while you’re abroad.

Research, Research, Research
This is a classic piece of advice, but there’s a reason: countless travel blunders can be avoided with proper preparation. In the weeks leading up to your trip, read up on you host country’s social etiquette, learn a handful of useful phrases in the local language, and try to get a sense of what could go wrong while you’re there. You’ll be amazed by how smoothly your trip will go when you have baseline knowledge of your destination. You can beat the crowds if you know your host city’s peak travel times. A misunderstanding with a local can diffuse if you offer a simple apology in his native language. And you can avoid causing a scene if you tip a street performer before taking a photo of her (trust me, this one comes from personal experience).


Keep Your Comparisons to Yourself
When you’re visiting a new destination, you’re bound to encounter people, foods, and social practices that you wouldn’t normally see at home. Making comparisons is sometimes unavoidable, but try to keep your observations to yourself. There’s a huge difference between mentally noting something unusual and ogling over it with your travel companions. Once you begin comparing your host country to your home country, it’s all too easy to start thinking of each place as “better” or “worse” than the other. Instead, try leaving your preconceptions at home. You might be surprised by how your perspective will change along the way!


Make Room
Personal space plays an important role in social interactions, and the etiquette around it varies depending on what country you’re in. For instance, Americans tend to prefer more personal space than Argentinians, but less personal space than the Chinese. No matter where your travels take you, take a cue from the people nearby. If you notice that everyone is comfortable cramming into a subway car like sardines, then by all means, jump in there and join them! But if you’re in a country where people keep their distance, be sure to follow suit. You never want to be in a position where you’re making others uncomfortable, and staying mindful of your personal space is an important preventative measure.


Don’t Generalize
Broad generalizations are a bad habit among travelers, especially those who have recently returned home from a long-term trip. It’s important to remember that your travel experiences are not necessarily representative of your entire host country. If you had bad service at a restaurant in Belgium, it’s probably not fair to write off all Belgian food service as subpar. Your visit to Morocco, enlightening as it may have been, does not necessarily make you an expert on African culture.  And if you start making blanket statements about entire countries, religions, or groups of people? There’s a good chance you’ve crossed into jerk territory.


Be Curious
As travelers, when we encounter something unusual, an easy response is to laugh it off or ignore it entirely. To truly make the most out of your time abroad—and to be a more engaged guest—don’t shy away from asking questions when you can. Whether you’re relying on a local guide or just the kindness of a passerby, chances are, you’ll learn a little more about your host country if you show genuine curiosity. And don’t despair if there’s no one around to ask. Keep a journal with your observations from the day, and if you have access to the internet, take a deep-dive in Wikipedia to learn more. If you approach new situations with desire to understand, you’ll come away from your travels with a richer world view.


Practice Patience, Kindness, and Gratitude
Travel is a significant investment of time and money—but at the end of the day, your host country doesn’t owe you anything. During your time on the road, your plans will inevitably fall apart, and inconveniences—both major and minor—are bound to arise. It’s how you react to these setbacks that will define you as a traveler. Approaching your trip with a spirit of gratitude can keep you grounded, even when times get tough. After all, you play a key role in making your travel experience a positive one.

Begin with patience. Take deep breaths during long lines, and use heavy traffic as a way to take in the scenery around you. Be kind to everyone around you, too--even if there’s a language barrier. Thank your servers, drivers, and hosts graciously. Smile as often as is culturally appropriate (no, really). Tip when it’s expected, and compliment others with sincerity. Practice gratitude when you can, and remember how fortunate you are to be able to travel—even during those less-than-glamorous moments. And above all else, try to leave every place better than you found it.

Not every tourist is a jerk, of course, but there are enough of them out there to give us all a bad name. Go into your next adventure with the goal of changing minds. By preparing for setbacks, keeping your expectations realistic, and prioritizing politeness, you can play a small part in making your next destination an enjoyable place for all.


About the Author

Grace Lower

Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.

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