Whenever I need to look up reviews about something, I tend to read the worst ones first. Even if something on average has excellent ratings, I want to know the specific reasons why some people hated it. I think that’s more constructive and informative than just taking the general consensus. But truth in travel blogging is hard to come by. When we write about a place, we straddle the line between being culturally insensitive and being honest. This often leads to a skewed picture of what traveling somewhere is actually like.
Why it’s hard to be completely honest as a travel blogger
I have a very ineffective filter for my thoughts, so I often run things that are questionable by my girlfriend in order to avoid insulting readers.
“Does this sound like it could get me banned from visiting the United Arab Emirates?”
“Is this a little too fucked up to say?”
What I’m really asking when I ask these questions is, “Am I being too honest?”
When we travel and then share our experiences, we’re not talking about a place in a vacuum. More often than not, we’re talking about people, a different culture, different norms. It’s not like reviewing an electric toothbrush on Amazon. Most of us have a hard time admitting that we don’t like something simply because we thought the people sucked or the food was bad. Or at least admitting it in writing.
People are very touchy when they think their nationality or way of life is being attacked. So if we appear overly critical of a place, we open ourselves up to a deluge of backlash from people in that country or others who have had positive experiences there. But when you think about it, isn’t that kind of like telling a rape victim, “Well, he’s always been so nice to me!” Should everyone else’s overwhelmingly positive experience or opinion invalidate your own negative experiences and opinion? Probably not, but sometimes it does.
No travel blogger wants to be accused of being closed-minded, insensitive, or worse, racist. So we gloss over things that might come off as offensive. As a result, travel blogs tend to be very rose-colored. We talk about how nice the architecture is and how beautiful the beach is. But we leave out the times where we were grossed out by the food, or we felt uncomfortable because of leery men.
“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything,” right?
The damage of positive generalizations
Perhaps the line between being culturally sensitive and being honest in travel blogging has to do with generalizing. How much of what you say assumes it applies to an entire country or an entire people? It’s very different to say “The streets in Bangkok were so dirty” than it is to say “Thailand is filthy.” “We met some rude people in Paris” versus “The French are so rude.”
And yet… when you read travel blogs, positive generalizations are rampant. “The most hospitable people in the world.” “Everyone is so helpful.” “People here are so nice.”
We feel entitled to make positive generalizations, because those couldn’t possibly offend. We don’t have the same candidness when it comes to negative experiences. But isn’t that valuable information to pass on to fellow travelers? Don’t you want to know if someone got scammed or robbed so you can avoid the same problem? Don’t you want to know if someone felt like they couldn’t trust the locals somewhere?
When you leave that part of out, you create a falsely positive notion of a place that omits the very real and present things that suck about it. It leaves readers uninformed, which at best, creates an expectation that will never be met, and at worst, could put someone in danger. Imagine saving up for a year and taking your only week off to visit a place that everyone touts as a paradise and thinking that it sucks. Wouldn’t you have appreciated reading alternative viewpoints to at least temper your expectations?
How to be culturally sensitive without being dishonest
In our culture where tolerance and open-mindedness are so highly valued, we tend to forget that being respectful and tolerant doesn’t mean you have to love and embrace every culture. It’s normal to find things off-putting, uncomfortable, or even offensive.
You can respect someone’s customs and way of life, and also find the fact that they stone women to death for extramarital sex completely barbaric. The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible to accept that something happens without having to like it. You’re entitled to your opinion. (Though in my case, the people throwing the stones would probably disagree.)
Like reviews of an electric toothbrush, travel experiences are subjective and vary according to your opinion. As a reader of travel blogs, you’d do well to remember that. Whether someone had a fantastic time or an awful one, at the end of the day, this is one person’s subjective interpretation of what they saw and did. And it wouldn’t necessarily reflect your own experiences or opinions about a particular place.
What are travel bloggers to do? When in doubt, it’s best to be specific. Show, don’t tell. Instead of making blanket statements (positive or negative) about what you experienced, describe what you experienced, and leave it up to the reader to interpret. What you consider friendly could seem pushy and overbearing to someone else. And isn’t it just as unfair to characterize an entire society as friendly as it is to deem them all dirty or threatening?