The Solo Woman Traveler
Women face unique challenges as we travel abroad. While we are excited to meet new people, we also have to think about personal safety. Understanding cultural differences in the areas of sex roles, verbal and non-verbal communication, and the treatment of foreign women can empower us as we go abroad. American women are taught to be adventuresome, independent and eager to meet people. We are used to being active: talking with people we dont know, making friends quickly, going out at night. We want to make the most of our time overseas and become involved in a variety of activities. Yet in many parts of the world the role of women is to stay at home. Friends are made through family ties, not at night in a bar. And there are often strong differences between how men and women are expected to act in public and in private. Dress, behavior, activity, eye contact, and topics of conversation are shaped by unspoken cultural norms.
And here we come... traveling alone or in groups, frequenting bars at night, and making eye contact with men we dont know. The non-verbal messages we send may surprise us.
Respect the Culture Your Visiting
Despite our beliefs about what rights women have around the world, we need to reach a balance between maintaining our identity and respecting the culture we are visiting. We might want to slow down and consider what we could gain by staying at home with the family instead of going to a club in Tokyo, or taking the time to talk to the grandmother selling flowers at the local market.
By balancing our sense of adventure with an awareness of cultural differences, we can gain personal power and break stereotypes as we travel abroad. Here are a few tips for gaining cultural sensitivity as women traveling abroad:
Research the country. Find out what the dress code is for women, which locations and situations are best for women to avoid, what non-verbal messages convey, etc. Start gathering this information by talking to women from that part of the world or who have traveled there.
Get to know the women of the country. Begin reading books by and about women of that area of the world (see below). Hook up with local womens organizations and families. While men and male dominated activities are more visible, take the time to reach out to women. Involve yourself in womens work, play with the children, stay at home in your host family, and talk to your mother.
Observe. We can learn a lot about roles, attitudes, and customs by watching. How do women carry themselves in public? What is the role of women in the host culture? What is the reputation of foreign women?
Honor the customs. We travel to other countries to learn, so we need to make the necessary effort to be respectful. That might mean packing away our t-shirts and jeans and putting on a sari or long skirt.
Be aware of cultural differences. If you have lived in Germany for a year and feel comfortable with male/female relationships, dont assume your expectations hold true in other countries. As you cross borders, accept the challenge of learning about each culture you encounter.
Use the language. Whether you are in a country for a few days or a year you will make a stronger connection with people by at least trying to communicate with people in their language.
Avoid generalizations. You might have a bad experience interacting with one Brit, but all British men are not necessarily unlikable. Focus on what you can learn about yourself and your own culture from each experience.
Listen to and trust your instincts. While we need to make efforts to adapt to a new culture, we also need to pay attention to what feels comfortable. When we are in a situation that makes us feel uncomfortable as women, we need to follow our instincts and leave.
Express yourself and the difficulties you experience to someone who can understand or in a journal. We all need an outlet.