Unpacked is AFAR’s advice column. Every month, Dr. Anu Taranath answers an ethical quandary that a reader recently faced. Taranath is a speaker, facilitator, and educator based in Seattle, Washington, who specializes in racial equity and social change. She’s the author of the book Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World (Between the Lines, 2019). If you have a question you’d like examined, please submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently we went to Sicily and stayed at several hotels. In one place a bellman (who also seemed to be a groundskeeper) carried our bags up a long flight of stairs and we tipped him. In the next place, a bellman helped carry our bags up a flight of stairs. I went to tip him and he said, “No, that’s not necessary.” I had basically already handed him the money and it seemed weird to take it back, so I said, “Please keep it.” I don’t know that he was offended, exactly, but he clearly indicated to me “that is not done here.” As a result, we stopped tipping the hotel staff. Did we do the right thing? — R.F.
On a practical level, yes, you did the right thing. The bellman shared information about a local norm and you shifted your behavior accordingly. For future trips, tipping in Italy is not commonplace, but is appreciated in certain scenarios, such as to tour guides.
However, I get the sense that your question might be focused less on that particular moment in Sicily and more about what to do with the confusing feelings that sometimes arise when we enter a new culture.
At home, the tacit knowledge of “how things are done” can feel at once ordinary and powerfully seductive. We know how traffic works and how to order at cafés. While traveling, though, we knock into new norms and sometimes get tripped up when the path isn’t clear: Do we seat ourselves at this restaurant? Can we eat with our hands? How does eye contact work here?
While that newness can feel exciting and fresh, it can also stretch us and leave us feeling hesitant or discombobulated. If we misstep and the bellman conveys to us, “That is not done here,” we can feel embarrassed. Most of us try to avoid situations where humiliation is potentially on the table. As a result, we don’t have a lot of practice in coping with the troubling feelings newness can invoke in us—be it the culture around tipping, touching, or toilets.
We don’t have a lot of practice in coping with the troubling feelings newness can invoke in us—be it the culture around tipping, touching, or toilets.
Part of these feelings, I suspect, stem from holding ourselves and one another to impossibly high standards. I’m curious where the assumption began that we should always know how things work in cultural contexts outside of our own. While we can try to learn as much as possible before we travel, it is impossible for anyone to know the cultural norms, habits, histories, and nuances across communities and geographies. Do we give ourselves space to learn? In my work as a professor, consultant, and tour director, I see how this unrealistic expectation leaves well-intentioned people unsure of how to broach unfamiliarity.
I don’t think we should be expected to know everything. Let us be courageous and daring and honest and admit we do not. For me, the point of travel lies in everyday moments where we might not know what to do, yet remain steady through the learning.
For me, the point of travel lies in everyday moments where we might not know what to do, yet remain steady through the learning.
OK, so you didn’t know if you should tip the Sicilian bellman, or what bargaining culture looks like in the Guatemalan market. Not knowing this right off the bat is fine. In fact, we travel to Sicily or Guatemala to notice our knowledge gaps and stretch and grow. This is good for us; it helps to recalibrate our hubris toward humility. As writer Pico Iyer says, “As soon as I’m on the road, I see, often palpably, that I know nothing at all, which is always a great liberation.”
If you want tips on tipping or bargaining, watch how local people in the community do things and follow along. Know that as a foreigner, though, you may be expected to act differently. You can also ask someone who’s a cultural broker, perhaps a driver, tour guide, or hotel staff, for helpful pointers. Enjoy your interactions with people, as these fleeting moments may be more meaningful than any information you glean.
While I try not to be offensive or egregiously wrong, over the years I’ve abandoned the need to know it all or be right all the time.
While I try not to be offensive or egregiously wrong, over the years I’ve abandoned the need to know it all or be right all the time. Instead, I appreciate the moments that show me I know less than I’d like to. I expect to feel uncomfortable every now and then, recover quickly, and open myself to learn more. See if you too can free yourself from the desire to error-proof your journeys. Self-criticism only stunts us. A mindful traveler welcomes the unknown and holds playfully and lightly those moments that show us all there is to know in our big, bewildering, and glorious world.