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Talking politics abroad: A how to guide for the conscious traveler

Talking politics abroad: A how to guide for the conscious traveler

Talking Politics Abroad

A How To Guide for the Conscious Traveler

My first time traveling, I was adamantly instructed not to discuss politics.  They told me, “it was better to leave politics out of the conversation.”  After doing a good bit of traveling on my own, I can firmly say that I disagree.  Although there is some logic to keeping politics out of conversation, I would say that one of my biggest highlights when traveling is the opportunity to openly discuss issues with others who have a different perspective than my own.

What is crucial here is to know what you can discuss and things that you should leave out.  Think back to what you were taught when you learned your manners: some things do not make good table conversationYour ability to decipher the difference is your key to success.

Should you find yourself contemplating your approach to discussing politics abroad, here are some suggestions for making political conversation abroad:

  1. Stay away from sensitive subjects that you are aware of.  Perhaps, one of the situations above fits your conversation or you are aware of another issue with a particular individual with whom you are in a conversation with, whichever the case, both out of respect for the person and the conversation, keep quiet.  If you must ask, do so by testing the waters.  Start with something not so inquisitive and gauge their response accordingly.
  2. Be diplomatic.  Understand that everyone is entitled to their own point of view, and although you may not necessarily agree you can still learn something.  One of my favorite professors once told me that he loved to disagree because he had never learned something from someone who he agreed with.  I couldn’t agree more.  There is nothing wrong with disagreeing, just be cordial.
  3. Remember where you are physically.  Depending on where you are in the world, laws and rights change.  I hate to break it to you, but when you travel you forego the rights of your native country and temporarily adopt the rights and laws of the country that you are traveling in. Laws on what is acceptable to openly discuss can change quite drastically around the world.  Keep abreast of your situation and don’t forget where you stand.  Ignorance is not an excuse.
  4. Respect religion in conversation.  It does not matter if you are religious or not, but respecting religion in conversation is one of the more important lessons that I have learned.  It will also show others that you appreciate them and their customs.  If you speak of someone else’s religion, I have found that it helps to attempt to speak in their terms.  Remember that to them, it is not just one of the world’s religions as it may be for you; it is their life.  This can also apply to other situations.  For example, if you sit down for dinner with Hindus think twice about ordering beef, which is sacred to them.  Obviously what you choose to eat is your business, but consider someone else’s perspective as a form of mutual respect.
  5. Be bold, yet flexible and adaptable.  One of the more important aspects of discussing heavy conversation abroad is the ability to be flexible and adapt to others philosophies, ideas, and perspectives.  There is never any reason for you to give into anything that you do not believe, but it is good to be open to the idea that someone can have a different opinion.  Furthermore, when discussing politics or other related matters with others from around the world, one can quickly realize how radically different cultural norms can be.
  6. Ask for clarification.  Before speaking on something that you are not entirely sure about or going off on a tangent, ask the person to clarify any unanswered questions that you may have or to better explain something to you.  You will likely find that this is a better alternative than speaking on something of which you know very little about.
  7. Play the neutral card.  Be more like an observer than a debater.  Playing neutral is a safe and effective way to discuss politics when traveling.  People will ask you your opinions, but you do not always have to give them.  Listen and learn from others, but don’t feel compelled to speak your mind if you don’t want to do so.
  8. Sometimes you just have to let it go. The last tip that I have for talking politics is this.  There are times when there is just not going to be a middle ground.  The best thing for everyone is to accept that people have their differences and just let it go.  Move on to other topics and don’t let one disagreement ruin the night.

Why should you care?

Well, let’s take these two situations such as: discussing human rights while visiting closed countries or discussing a war with a refugee from an affected area.  They are probably not the best ideas as one could land you in jail, while the other could bring up bad feelings and negative emotions for the affected.  Truthfully, this is never exact, but in some cases it is better to be safe than sorry.

Obviously, you have autonomy in any situation that you find yourself in.  I have found that these tips have helped me, especially when I know people aren’t going to agree with me.  I have no problem disagreeing with people or discussing serious things, but I also like to build community rather than push people away.  Some people will tell you to leave politics out.  Others, like myself, enjoy those conversations the most.  The decision is yours.  

In conclusion, talk away, share, and learn from one another’s perspectives just be mindful of your surroundings.



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Do you have anything to add to this or any experiences traveling abroad?


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  1. Andy, Some years ago, I spent 5 1/2 years living and working abroad in countries around the world, and I have to agree with you completely on your guidelines for talking and not talking politics. Even though it’s a great temptation to promote our own agendas or way of thinking, it’s much better to build bridges.

    • What a great experience Carroll! It is definitely a tricky balance, but I believe that it can be done. I think it is also more important that we do attempt to build those bridges rather than isolate ourselves. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Excellent guide and information. I am going world travel and your info is very helpful for me.

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