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Friday 6 pm. 10 ˚C.  Summertime at a pub. What an unexpected place to learn about cultural sensitivity.

Sipping on ice-cold beers at a tiny table in a crowded pub, my friend and I share what have been the best attractions on our trip around England. I raise my hand to tell the bartender we’d like two more beers. Ten minutes pass. The bartender doesn’t show up, and neither do our beers. So, I stand up and make eye contact with the bartender, again raising my hand, indicating two more beers, plus the magic word: please!  Suddenly, a young guy wearing a neon jacket appears at our side and starts a conversation, asking us where we’re from.

“South Africa,” my friend says, smiling.

“Cool!” he replies. “But your English is pretty good! Where did you learn it?And how come you’re white?”

“Well, that’s why we call South Africa the ‘Rainbow Nation’ because we’re a beautiful mix of cultures and languages in one country,” answered my friend with a hint of annoyance. While she was speaking, I felt irritated and disappointed that we always get the same silly questions from people around the world. 

Eventually, the bartender approaches us, asking, “is everything ok?”. “Yes,” I say, raising my voice so he could hear me over the music blasting from two massive speakers. I repeat my beer order — again pointing with my hand, but this time I feel something is wrong.

“I’m more than happy to serve you the beers, but only if you stop giving me the finger,” he says kindly. A shaky and confused “what?” emerges from my lips as he shows me the proper way to use my fingers if I want to indicate the number two (like the peace sign) or give the finger (a reversed peace sign).

Feeling embarrassed, I say, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean it, and thanks for explaining the difference to us.” He tells us not to worry and walks back to the bar.

On our way back to our hostel, we talk about the two experiences at the pub. We realize how awkward it was for the bartender, the guy with the neon jacket, and for us to be in a situation where we offend someone just because we lack knowledge about a country’s customs and cultures.  We compare it to how offended locals in India must feel when tourists wear inappropriate clothing when visiting a temple. Or when people poke fun at national stereotypes. 

“But wait a minute!” my friend exclaims. “Isn’t what we experienced this evening a lack of cultural sensitivity?” “Oh yes!” She explains that cultural sensitivity is a concept in tourism related to one’s ability to sense and respect cultural differences. As such, the idea of cultural sensitivity is a key component of sustainable tourism,” my friend explains. 

“It makes sense. Thanks for sharing,” I say.

What I Learned About Cultural Sensitivity  

That day, I confirmed the cliche that the best way to learn is from our own experiences. In that opportunity, I learned how important it is to be aware of cultural differences. And more than that, I need to do my homework — for example, learn some basic local customs (including rude hand gestures!) — before stepping foot in a new destination. 

If travelers are culturally sensitive, their behavior will stand out, which in turn will influence how the locals feel about tourists. So rather than naively bumbling through a country, try to learn some polite expressions in the local language, learn table manners, ask permission to photograph others, etc.

4 Takeaways:

1. Being culturally sensitive is recognizing, embracing, and respecting the differences between cultures.

2. Cultural sensitivity is not just a responsibility of the guests (visitors). It rests on the shoulders of both the hosts (locals) and guests to enrich the interaction.

3. When hosts and guests are culturally sensitive, they are more aware of the importance of showing respect and being a positive influence. All of which play a part in sustainable tourism.

4. Before traveling to a destination, research as much as possible about the local laws, customs, cultures, political climate, and religious practices. Doing so will give you a better idea about daily life, such as how to eat, dress and behave in certain situations.

Jacqui de Klerk

Travel writer from Capetown, South Africa who has written travel stories for leading online travel publications, including Lonely Planet and World Nomads.

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