Local Economy, Goodwill and Culture–Know before You Go

December 16, 2009

Most seasoned globe-trekkers will likely agree they have experienced helpful, compassionate, kind and gentle people in their travels—local people that are willing to give what might seem like an enormous amount of their time. People that provide something you need, that can’t be found at the local store. Or even volunteer a place in their home for you to sleep because your plans somehow changed. There are countless other examples that likely occur every day all over the world—all without expecting compensation.

Remember too that you find what you bring. Attitude is important!

To some, this abundance of goodwill might seem shocking and hard to handle. A typical first reaction is to get their wallet out and pay for it. Even worse—to overpay for it!

Recently I was reading a story from a publication who periodically publishes notes from traveler’s and their experiences. Most are informative and enjoyable to read. This one story however generated some thoughts about how a local might see a traveler.

In apparent amazement of the low costs at their destination, the writer of this story was feeling magnanimous… He “took a taxi from the hotel to dinner one night and the fare was $1. He offered the driver $2 and the driver refused. Only after the passenger insisted that he understood the price and that the extra dollar was a tip, did the driver take it”.

The writer continued… “In a small pharmacy, we asked for a needle to sew on a button. They didn’t sell them but the proprietor gave us one from her own sewing basket and refused to accept payment”.

What’s wrong with this you might ask? One of the quickest ways I know to spoil a culture is to import your own value system. At home something might cost 10 Euro or 8 usd, and where you are visiting might cost a fraction of that. Your culture might show appreciation by giving money; theirs might be how you treat someone.

Think about what you might do if you saw someone from ‘out of town’ struggling with directions, language or accommodations. Would you help? My guess is you would, and then afterward they offered you money. How would you feel? Insulted perhaps? You helped because you could—and it made you feel good. Instead of creating some puzzling, uncomfortable moment that ended awkwardly, you might have made a new friend or two!

But more importantly, and I hesitate to say this, the quickest way I know to ruin a local economy and watch things get more and more expensive is to do things like offer to pay double the cab ride for a ‘tip’. Imagine you are in New York City and your cab ride is $50.00 usd and you pay the driver $100.00. He’s going to think many things about you and few are likely to be favorable. Over the long term, if this occurs with any increasing regularity, it might have the strange and insidious effect of causing disdain and disrespect for the visiting culture. And fare’s might also increase more rapidly than they otherwise would.

There’s a better way to show appreciation than by just giving money.

So how might a person better handle this abundance of goodwill; this benevolent demonstration of humanity? In a word…graciously!…warmly, with a smile, a thank you in their language, and perhaps a handshake in the local style or friendly touch.

However some cultures simply cannot receive without giving. And in the case above, that person might have bought something at the Pharmacy since the giver was also the store owner. Another idea is to carry small items for ‘trade’ when these wonderful moments occur—and with any luck they will. Try pens or pencils, they are easy to pack, needed and can be personalized with a message in the local language too. Your message might say ‘Viva Mexico, greetings from (name), (country) with contact info if you wish. Who knows, you might just develop your own international network this way.

So please keep in mind that when traveling, you are an ambassador of sorts to your country. And money is no replacement for grace and appreciation. Read up before you go and lead with your heart not your wallet.

P.S. A fun link to get a feel for local currency differences is the Big Mac Index, check it out here:



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