Written by Laura Williamson

It’s actually really easy.

Often the only stories of cultural insensitivity that we hear about involve young Brits who do something silly on a gap year and end up getting in trouble with local police – and on the front of every UK newspaper. One of the best examples of this is the 'Naked backpacker,' Eleanor Hawkins, a 23-year-old graduate who, along with nine other friends, stripped on a sacred Malaysian mountain and ended up spending three days in jail.

Stripping on a sacred mountain is illegal in Malaysia, and Eleanor might have thought twice about it if she had checked the Foreign Office website before she travelled, which outlines the local laws and customs of each country. However, just because you don’t end up languishing in jail or creating a diplomatic storm whilst on your travels, doesn’t mean that you’re not being culturally insensitive, and it doesn’t negate the seriousness of it.

Cultural insensitivity can come in less obvious but equally insidious ways. Aside from being incredibly offensive to locals, this can also have an effect on how people in other countries view, not just you personally, but the UK as a whole. Therefore, here are a few ways to prevent getting yourself (and the rest of the country) into hot water:


  1. Follow the rules

Might be an obvious one, but if you’re travelling and a sign tells you not to do something, or if you’ve heard from a tour guide or a local that something is frowned upon, just don’t do it. Even if it seems silly to you, it’s better to be safe than sorry, embarrassed, fined or in jail. For example, if you’re in Rome and there’s a sign that says you can’t have a bath in the Trevi fountain, don’t have a bath in the Trevi fountain, unless you want a hefty fine. It’s quite simple.  


  1. If you’re unsure, refrain from taking pictures

Taking pictures of something you’re not supposed to, even if you don’t understand why, can be frowned upon and problems can follow you back home if you upload them onto social media. For example, it may be really obvious that you wouldn’t pose for a photo on a tour of Auschwitz – remember the young American girl who took a selfie? – but recently Jewish groups have slammed British tourists for doing the exact same thing. It’s not hard to understand why this is culturally insensitive; 1.1 million people were murdered in the camp, but even taking pictures in front of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin can be incredibly offensive. These may be extreme examples, but if you’re at a shrine, memorial, or somewhere culturally sensitive, ask permission, ask a local, or just don’t take the picture. Your Insta feed isn’t worth offending that many people.


  1. Briefly read up on the history of the country

The problem of taking culturally insensitive pictures can be solved by doing some quick research on the country to which you’re travelling. It doesn’t take that long to flick through its Wikipedia page or some recent news articles on the country, and it might help in times when your friends think it’s a good idea for you all to strip once you get to the top of the mountain you’ve been climbing. In all seriousness, the world is an ever-changing place and conflicts start and end all the time, so it’s definitely worth gaining some context of where you’re travelling to, even if it just prevents you putting your foot in it with a local. 


  1. Check the FCO website before you go

Even if you don’t have time to do a quick Google of the country in question, the Foreign Commonwealth Office website have notes on every single country, including any important local customs and laws. For example, although photographing government buildings, palaces and local people may be accepted when travelling in Europe, in Saudi Arabia, this is absolutely not allowed. The FCO website also has information on how you’re expected to dress, with restrictions in countries such as the Maldives, Nepal and Fiji, depending on where you are.


  1. If all else fails: if you wouldn’t do it in the UK, don’t do it anywhere else

A simple rule to live by, especially when it comes to mixing with the locals. You wouldn’t bring up politics or religion to a stranger in certain parts of the UK, so why would you do it elsewhere? Travelling is an adventure and a time to experience new things, just don’t be stupid. If you wouldn’t accept ayahuasca (a powerful hallucinogenic) off someone on a street in the UK, why would you accept it travelling through the Amazon?