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Ignorance is Bliss?: Cultural Sensitivity while Abroad

By Colleen Whiting
20 Apr 2015

Four and half months ago, I left Indianapolis, Indiana, United States of America for the bonnie land of Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom. With only eight weeks of my semester long adventure left, I can say that I did not expect to run into any ethical dilemmas while abroad. Yet being in another country has forced me to encounter more than I did back home.

At the Eiffel Tower, London Eye, or the Opera House in Vienna, you are expected to act like a tourist. Taking photos, oohing and ahhing, talking loudly, and blatantly acting like a tourist are not abnormal behaviors to locals because they are facilitating your tourist experience. But when you are in a small restaurant in Prague, is it disrespectful to do the same? As a tourist, should you change behavior based on your situation? Is ethical tourism even a possibility and what does it look like? One of the things that I struggle with is how to be respectful of other cultures while trying to experience them in a short amount of time. This internal battle between wanting to take my photos and then not wanting to offend those who live there has marked my traveling.

Another stamp of my travels is the amount of other tourists who seem not to care about the local culture in the least. From chanting “USA” in a Dublin bar to singing loudly on a tour bus with 35 other people on it, I have been shocked by how little concern some tourists show for the people around them. I love my country, I love my hometown, and I love my school; but I did not go abroad to talk about that love across the pond. Instead, I went abroad to learn something new about myself in a different place and to try and grow. This is not to say that I am not a tourist, but its hard to embrace a culture and truly immerse yourself it in when you are just there to snapchat or pose in front of a monument. Traveling should be about discovering parts of your soul in another place and setting, not how many likes you can get on an Instagram. As a 21 year old, its pretty hard to not care about social media, but making a conscious effort to take in the culture has given me more happiness than hitting 200 likes has. I wonder if travelling ethically means we have to give up a little part of who we were back home in order to fully participate in the present.

Being abroad has made me miss Greencastle, Indiana more than anyone should ever miss a small Indiana town, but I have loved every minute of this journey. They say that adventure is good for the soul, and I would have to agree. But adventuring for a couple days at a time does present the dilemma of how to do so respectfully. From the people in my program to the trips that I have been on, cross-culture communication has become a part of my daily life. The ideas of cross-culture communication and cultural sensitivity expand beyond my abroad experience and those experiences of the other DePauw University students abroad this semester. International communities exist both in governments, like the UN, or in industries, like NATO or OPEC. Cultural sensitivity and figuring out how to communicate across boundaries should be at the core of these organizations, and yet, that is not exactly what we see in practice. How does that change? Or should it change? How can individuals and communities work on interacting with each other in a more respectful manner? Does this topic even matter?

Colleen graduated from DePauw University in 2016 with Political Science major. She is from Indianapolis, Indiana, and is currently in law school.
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