Travel is a great way to teach your kids about other cultures and the importance of proper cultural etiquette. Unfortunately, when we talk about other cultures, we usually think about traveling to another country.
For example, we may be aware that in parts of the world, making direct eye contact is considered disrespectful, and that some countries frown on smiling at complete strangers. Yet, as much as we may try to familiarize ourselves with the different cultural norms in foreign countries, we often drop the ball when it comes to the cultural differences within our own country.
Below is a guide your family can use when encountering different cultures in the US, be it Amish Country, the Chickasaw Nation, or anywhere else in this large, diverse country.
Remember that You Are a Guest
Be it a reservation, an ethnic neighborhood, or a small town, remember that you are just passing through and that there are people who actually live there.
Just as you would expect someone to respect the rules of your house, and your privacy; and just as you would not appreciate it if someone criticized your cooking or décor, so should you and your family respect the people and places you visit.
Ask Permission to Take Photographs
There is a saying that goes “My culture is not your entertainment.” It’s usually used in reference to the tendency to misappropriate Native American culture in fashion and popular entertainment. However, this phrase can also be useful in day-to-day encounters.
For example, the Amish tend to avoid having their photos taken, because it’s considered an act of pride. However, if you ask nicely, they may allow you to photograph their homes or buggies.
The same goes for public ceremonies, exhibitions and casual interactions on reservations and other Native American areas. For example, when visiting the Chickasaw nation–or really anywhere, for that matter–it’s polite to ask permission before taking photographs of the people you encounter. If you don’t get a definite yes, it’s best not to press the issue. It’s simply not worth offending or disrupting someone over a single photograph.
Respect the Diversity Within the Diversity
Not all Amish eschew telephones and electricity. Not all Native Americans have the same cultural practices. The people in Chickasaw Country could have a very different culture than the people in Navajo areas; the Amish in the Pennsylvania foothills could be very different from the communities in Indiana. There may even be subtle differences between communities in close proximity to each other.
In short, don’t lump everyone together. Learn about what makes this place different from similar places you have visited.
Pay Attention to the Unspoken Dress Code
This kind of goes with respecting someone else’s house. Even if no one posts a specific dress code, it’s a good idea to take social cues from what the people who live there are actually wearing. This doesn’t mean you have to adopt “native” dress, but if most of the women are wearing skirts to their ankles, you might want to save the short shorts and mini-skirt for another day.
Ask Questions in the Right Way
If you are serious about learning and teaching your kids about the culture you are visiting, consider asking questions at the cultural center. The average guy on the street might be able to answer your questions, but how would you feel if you were on your way to the store and some tourist stopped you to ask you questions about your culture? Not everyone you meet is going to appreciate being made an impromptu cultural ambassador.
Instead, consider visiting a local museum where there are people on staff to answer your questions. You could also consider striking up a conversation with some of the service people. For example, if there’s a restaurant that specializes in local cuisine, you could strike up a conversation with the server about the food. If you’re looking at furniture, you could ask the shopkeeper about building techniques. Just do so respectfully, and with the understanding that they are not obligated to answer your questions..
Understand that even though they live in the same country as you, the lives and experiences of some cultural groups could be very different from yours. Remember to treat anyone you encounter with the same respect that you would expect from them.