Before a big trip, it’s natural to spend lots of time stressing about what you’ll pack: your favorite socks, travel toothbrush, your various gizmos and the AC adapters that go along with them. In fact, there are entire retail outfits dedicated to this very cause: shops and sites offering everything a traveler might possibly dream of, from ergonomic eye pillows to flat-pack flower vases (you know, just in case).
Our materialistic culture puts an emphasis on all the stuff you’ll need while traveling. That means we spend the days leading up to our trips worrying, perhaps excessively, about gizmos, shoe protectors, and travel-sized toiletries. All this emphasis on material things means we’ve barely got the headspace to consider the equally important, but perhaps less glamorous art of non-material travel prep.
Culturally-aware travelers who want to get more out of their trips can think of themselves as having two packing lists: one for physical needs, and one for the mind. Packing up mentally prepares you to see more, feel more, learn more, and experience a new place more richly. Example items for the mental packing list: a basic knowledge of recent history, awareness of local customs and culture. Remembering to “pack” these essential mental items will be rewarded with fuller conversations, deeper human connections, and more magical little details while on the road.
Here are four items to jump-start your next “mental packing list.” Awesome travel is about conversations, connections, and ideas—whether or not you’ve got the latest mini Bluetooth speaker to go along with it:
Who’s the country’s leader?
You’ve just arrived at a gorgeous beachside retreat in Bali. You’re starving after that long flight but luckily, your hosts have surprised you with an invitation to dinner, beachside. Overlooking the crystal blue ocean, beneath swaying palms, you devour a few fried loempias and a glass of wine, happily forgetting about that long flight and your jetlag. After a few more glasses of wine, the table conversation turns to politics. The Dutch lady to your left and the Thai traveler to your right are talking about someone, a politician—Jo-something?— it’s something to do with Bali and elections—the president, maybe? You’re not sure, and you don’t want to reveal your ignorance by asking. So, you say nothing, simmering in your unexpected embarrassment as your companions converse jovially, right over your head.
This is just one example—fictional, but plausible— of why it’s good to do a little research before takeoff. You might think, “oh, I’ll just Google it when I get there,” but when traveling, good Internet can be hard to find, and conversations like the above can surprise you anywhere. Wouldn’t you rather be able to jump right in to the conversation, whether with locals or fellow travelers? Knowing who is the president, prime minister or monarch is a good place to start familiarizing yourself, and always a good pop quiz question before hopping any plane.
What’s been happening lately?
There’s a lot going on out there in the world, and a lot of it won’t ever make mainstream news. Just because it’s not making international headlines doesn’t mean it’s not a huge deal for people in the place you’re visiting. Consider this role-reversal: Let’s say you live in New York City. A visiting couchsurfer from Japan has come to stay with you. You’re walking down the block in New York with your Japanese guest when you pass a large mural that says Black Lives Matter. What happens next could depend entirely on whether your companion has properly packed his “mental luggage.” If he didn’t take the time to research local New York affairs before his arrival, he might just walk right by the mural without thinking too much about it. Opportunity lost. If he did pack mentally before his trip, then he’d be likely to say, “hey, I recognize this!” Maybe you’d chat about it together, or he’d stop to take a photo because that mural is now quite meaningful in his eyes. Spotting the mural made his travel experience richer and more interesting, because he had learned about basic local events before his trip.
Now swap roles: If you went to Japan this weekend, would a local political slogan on a mural mean anything to you? If the answer is no, would you prefer that it did?
“Are you married?”
“How old are you?”
“Nice big belly you have there!”
“That baby has a huge head!”
Each of these statements could be considered either completely normal or totally offensive, depending on what culture you’re in. Same goes for hand gestures, only with much higher stakes. Familiar habits of greeting, pointing, and even simply indicating “OK” might have disrespectful or even obscene connotations in other countries. You definitely want to know the norms for greeting, pointing, acceptable small talk and personal questions anywhere you travel, especially in cultures that are very new to you.
The internet is a good starting point to learn about taboo, but it’s even better to ask someone who knows the place well, preferably someone who has lived there for some time. An ally like this will be able to tailor their advice to your gender and age (which may have great bearing on what’s taboo for you specifically). A person who knows the culture will have up-to-date, real-life information, whereas info you get from websites might be outdated or over-exaggerated. Taboos change over time, so make sure your facts are recent!
What do locals pride?
Knowing the taboos can be a safeguard against embarrassment and even possible conflict. But how about focusing on the positive side of culture? Every culture has unique points of pride. Knowing what those things are can flatter hosts, impress acquaintances, and show that you really appreciate what the culture has to offer.
You can use what you already know, for example, in Chile you could mention the popularity of their wines in your hometown. You could go more in-depth and research something like respected traditions of music and dance—most every culture has them. For example, in Guadeloupe, you could pay compliments to Gwo Kwa, or in Brazil, express your appreciation of capoeira. If conversation about the arts is outside your comfort zone, there’s always the ultimate cultural talking point: sports. If you were to go to Spain, you could surely mention something nice about the last World Cup, or if you travel to the United States, find out which baseball team is popular in the area. Kindness, curiosity, and a little bit of research go a long way!
Hopefully these four suggestions for your next “mental packing list” will help you to be a more compassionate and respectful traveler. They’re sure to bring you closer to being the type of traveler who has great conversations, makes amazing connections, and feels at ease in new situations, winning over hospitality hosts and impressing acquaintances all along the way.
Before departing, it’s also important to practice the local language. Sign up for some language lessons before your next trip.