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  • Writer's pictureIsla Ramie

The Courteous Traveler

Many travel etiquette articles on the world wide web go into all of the niceties of traveling and co-existing with other humans, but let's be honest. It is all about the overhead bin space. I can handle the cutting in line. I have the patience for cultural differences such as personal space and hygiene, but when it comes to air travel, keep your damn personal items out of the overhead bins. Please understand, I am writing this from an American woman's perspective, and my views are most definitely culturally influenced, the same as yours. But as fellow travelers, we must all agree, bin space and other travel etiquettes, like masks on planes, are sacrosanct, and they keep society from coming unhinged. Okay, well, maybe that is going a bit far. Polite travelers make a trip enjoyable, discourteous travelers make it very irksome. So let us break down some of those irksome travel faux pas.

Common tips for being a courteous traveler include; learning a bit of the language of the country you are visiting, dressing respectfully, and reserving criticism of food and culture. There are also intangible, foundational cultural values that must be taken into account before we even get to the Ps and Qs of polite travel. These intrinsic values vary from culture to culture, and tolerance of these differences is the basis of travel etiquette. Felicity Menzies, the CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, discusses nine cultural value differences. We will discuss three important distinctions between cultures and how they apply to travel etiquette.

The first distinction Menzies discusses is between Individualism and Collectivism. Individualistic Societies prize the autonomous "I," and the needs of the one override those of the group. This contrasts with Collectivist Societies where people identify with a close-knit community, prizing group welfare and goals over individual desires. Extended, multi-generational families are common in Collectivist Societies, and divorce rates and group bonds are stronger and more intimate. In Individualist Societies, love is prioritized in marriage over duty or responsibility. Solo activities are more common. Examples of solo activities can be seen in the solo travel movement, which is empowering yet highlights the distinction and presents a relevant example of individualism. Assertiveness is another cultural trait to dissect.

Some cultures value Assertive behavior, and meekness or non-dominant behavior is seen unfavorably. Strength, mental and physical, is prized, and self-worth is derived from power and status. Aggression is normalized as competition and dominance are revered as the measure of success. These cultures are blunt and vocal with thoughts and intentions despite the repercussions. This is the opposite of cultures that prize modesty and solidarity, and these communities prize "who you are more than what you do" (Menzies, n.d.). When traveling, Assertive Cultural Types are the loud and boisterous types. The ones who make it known when people cut in line because we would never let someone else take what they have earned by waiting. They also may be those who do the cutting feeling somehow entitled. The Non-Assertive typology wouldn't say anything valuing non-confrontation, and community harmony, and self-possessed behavior. The last cultural trait we will touch on is Power Distance.

Societies with high Power Distance are more often hierarchical. Social hierarchy is believed protective of social order, and this order is protected by the very power differential that created the hierarchy. A power feedback loop, if you will, that is promulgated by those of lower social status who accept and expect inequality to foster harmony (Menzies, n.d.). Low Power Distant Society eliminates the need for social hierarchy by endorsing the belief that inequalities between societal members should be minimized. Low Power Distant Societies have large middle classes that allow people to climb the ladder and shift between different circles of increasing affluence. Members of this societal structure are focused on commonality and cooperation to meet the needs of the whole. Now, what the heck does this have to do with travel etiquette?

Well, people from high Power Distance societies may be more likely to believe that they are entitled to special treatment because of their status, whereas those from low Power Distance places are likely to share resources. High Power Distance individuals may be accustomed to existence in a state of scarcity, forcing them to make a power grab before someone else does, i.e., they cut in line or push their airplane seat back into the person's lap directly behind them. The person with a low Power Distance mindset would not think of encroaching on someone else's space and would likely leave the seat in the upright position. I understand that seat position is a huge source of contention between those who fly, with some saying "You have the right to recline" if your seat has that functionality and opposition stating that "reclining is irritating, inconvenient [and] self-indulgent." (Fan, 2020). This is a prime example of the difference between the low and high Power Distance mindsets.

If we take each of these cultural values and apply them to travel, we can see how the act of getting on an airplane or queuing up at Space Mountain can get so irritating and contentious at times. If we come from an Assertive or high Power Distance foundational system, we may feel that if we are boarding in the 1st or 2nd group on an airplane, that gives us the right and privilege to stow both our carry-on and our large personal items such as a backpack, in the overhead. First come, first serve. Whereas the 4th or higher boarding group, who is also permitted a carry-on, may have to check their bag because all of the overhead space is has been utilized. Frantically, they shoot glances up and down the aisle, looking for a free space full well knowing that they are holding up the rest of the line, through no fault of their own, but because previous boarders didn't want their backpack at their feet. We see that the same power differential played out with individual adherence to mask policies on Airlines.

Lately, you cannot turn on the news without hearing something about the Mask Wars. If you wear a mask, "you are a sheep," if you do not, "you are an uncaring, superspreader." Individuals are testing boundaries and pushing back against airline policy and are being removed from the airplane.

They believe mandatory masks to be "unconstitutional" and "a violation of their personal freedoms and liberties." Airlines, on the other hand, take a more Collectivist mindset of keeping their passenger community safe, believing it is their right to protect their patrons and remove individuals not in compliance with this policy. As a business owner, this is their prerogative. If someone were to smoke on an airline or in a restaurant where smoking is banned, the establishment has the right not to serve that customer. According to Workplace Fairness, "Even if there is not an applicable law, employers can have their own workplace smoking policies that prohibit smoking entirely or limit it to certain areas, like a break room, or outside area," due to known negative health effects related to secondhand smoke (Workplace Fairness, 2020). When one participates in society, one sacrifices some personal liberties. Running around naked is frowned upon, at least in America, unless it is at specific beaches or private communities. Don't get me wrong. I love being naked as much as the next gal, but it is not always appropriate. I'd be remiss not to mention the distinction between nudity and public breastfeeding, which everyone should support as a public health gain. Other examples include vulgar language and loud conversation.

We Americans are loud. I am the first to admit it and the most cognizant of that individualistic trait when traveling. I realize that the French refer to families like mine as a "rabbit family," one consisting of "too many" children. (Also a cultural value). Having five kids is boisterous and loud at times, but I insist that we lower the volume and be conscientious of more traditional families when we travel. This is especially true when we are flying to or visiting Europe. We also don't dress like Americans, no tennis shoes and gym shorts.

We try to blend in, sacrificing our own comfort to set others at ease. Don't get me wrong. I am by no means saying that you should not wear white tennis shoes and shorts that Americans are known for. I am merely stating that these are things that we think about. You see, neither cultural value is better or worse than the other. It is what makes us different and unique. I can appreciate how someone would "steal my overhead space," It pisses me off because I always put my personal bags under the chair in front of me. But I get it. I am 5'8," and those seats are tight; my legs are squished. If I were raised by a family valuing High Power traits, I may recline my seat and throw everything I brought on the plane, including my winter coat and luggage, into the overhead, making myself perfectly comfortable. But, I was raised by an Italian mother who prioritized other traits that made me value harmony over personal comfort. This is why I was so thrown when I heard my husband loudly conversing with a Texan from 4 rows behind and on the opposite side of the plane. They were talking about Ford vs. Ferrari that they watched on the plane trip. "No one wants to hear your recap of that movie," I said. "If they wanted to know what happened, they would have watched the movie!" I naggingly scolded as we walked the sky bridge.

I brought up two different groups here, and by no means should we get into the habit of stereotyping Texans as loud and Italians as reserved and close-knit, keeping feelings tight to the chest. However, cultural norms do exist because they are generally typical of a group. Back to Menzies, "Cultural values do not allow one to predict the behavior and responses of individuals with certainty, yet a working knowledge of how members of a cultural group, in general, think and behave provides a useful starting point for navigating intercultural interactions," (n.d.).

When we think of courteous travelers, it is my personal opinion that we should lean toward a collectivist mindset. Are we not shrinking the world and trying to widen our circle of experience? If we are, we should treat those we encounter as an integral part of our travel community and afford them the courtesy that we would extend to a loved one. Wear the mask on the plane, use the overhead bin space sparingly, ask before you crush someone's knees with the seatback, be sure you understand where the end of the queue is before you get in line. Be humble. You are a visitor and guest in a strange place among strangers, but they could become so much more.

Thanks for reading. Catch you next week, and in the meantime, courteous adventures to you!



Coombe, T. (2015, June 18). 20 Travel etiquette tips to mind your Ps and Qs. Small Business Trends.

Fan, K. (2020, Feb. 17). Travel etiquette: The final word on the right to recline. The Points Guy.

Menzies, F. (n.d.). Nine cultural value differences you need to know. Include-Empower.

Workplace Fairness. (2020). Smoking and the Workplace. Workplace Fairness.

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