Digital Nomads and Tourists: are we being sensitive to local cultures?

In the excitement of travel, are we forgetting to be polite to locals?

Jama Masjid Mosque, Old Delhi, India

Jama Masjid Mosque, Old Delhi, India

On one of my trips to India, I visited the Jama Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi. A beautiful ancient place of worship built by Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor who built the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in 1644.

Before entering, we were asked to rent a pair of disposable booties, a long tunic, and a scarf. I noticed that a few of the women behind me were saying they didn’t understand why they had to wear headscarves and long tunics if they weren’t Muslim. I bit my tongue, but I was about to blurt out, “For the same reason, people of a different religion don’t wear a bikini when they enter a church to see the art.”

The colorful tunics we rented in order to allowed into the Mosque

The colorful tunics we rented in order to allowed into the Mosque

Once inside, I saw a few men sitting in prayer and noticed some women taking photos of them as if they were part of the decor and not human beings.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Instagram a photo of the beautiful hand embroidered items a girl was selling on a street in Mexico City. Someone commented: “Isn’t that rude?” Yes, it is. That’s why I asked the girl’s permission to take the photo.

Are we only polite to our own ethnic, social or religious groups?

Tongdosa Monastery in Yangsan, Korea

Tongdosa Monastery in Yangsan, Korea

In Korea, I was privileged to be invited to lunch at Tongdosa Buddhist Monastery in Yangsan. The head monk welcomed us and asked us to sit and please enjoy the tea and sweet cakes we were served on small tables. Yes, I did ask permission to take the photo above!

A couple of men in our group told our interpreter to please ask the monk to forgive them but they had bad knees and could not manage sitting on the floor. The monk simply laughed and set someone to get two chairs. Things are so much easier if one simply explains or asks permission when unsure if what one is about to do is rude.


Female athletes competing during the London 2012 Olympic Games

Female athletes competing during the London 2012 Olympic Games

During the Olympic Games, I am truly lucky because I get front-row seats at all ISSF Olympic competitions and I always take photos! But there’s a protocol to taking photos of athletes here too! If they’re competing and you’re far enough away that your movement will not disturb them, fine. If they’ve just finished competing and you approach the winners and shove a camera in their faces, that’s a BIG NO-NO! Protocol dictates that you approach, wait your turn and then ask if you can take a selfie with them.

The moral of the story is: NEVER assume another human being is going to be fine with you taking their photo without their permission. Just ask. They’ll usually say it’s ok.