I’m usually the first to advocate simply avoiding the authorities or outright running from them when it comes to trouble abroad, whether it’s your fault or not. Without a strong grasp of the language and culture –- sometimes not even then -– a foreigner who can’t be understood is more than likely going to be the one thrown in jail, when perpetrators or witnesses can outright lie to the police without you knowing.
However, even when there is a language barrier and cultural differences, there are times when we as human beings –- not travelers -– have a responsibility to act.
1. Avoid conflicts on the street, unless someone is clearly the victim
This is a tough one, because interrupting a fight or an attack –- even for the right reasons –- can make you the victim, or cause you to get arrested for being a Good Samaritan. For example, though physical violence is far from unheard of in South Korea, altercations involving yelling are much more common and unlikely to escalate. As a foreigner, inserting yourself between two people in such a situation is both unwise and unwelcome.
On the other hand, regardless of the country, if you see someone who is clearly the victim of an attack – whether it’s a woman being sexually assaulted, someone being attacked, or a pickpocket hoping to slip by unnoticed, you have a moral obligation to do something. Scream. Call the police (unless the police are the ones committing the crime). Step up yourself if you can handle it. Doing the right thing transcends culture.
2. Know when to tell someone to shut up
How we behave when we’re around others is undeniably a matter of our societal upbringing and individual personality; though being raised in a conservative culture doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be someone who enjoys running around naked at Burning Man. Similarly, behavior on public transportation varies widely around the world: in China, it’s not uncommon to hear people shouting (seemingly) at the top of their lungs while just having a normal conversation, but in Japan this would be almost unheard of.
For many of us, silence hurts no one, but noise is an assault on the ears. You don’t have a right to step onto a crowded train in India and act offended when people don’t stop talking, but if you step onto an Amtrak quiet car to find someone on his phone, you absolutely can and should tell him to shut his mouth. The bystander effect is all too real when it comes to confrontations like these; everyone is annoyed at the guy blasting his music on the subway, but very few ever step up.
3. Dispelling stereotypes, racism, and sexist ideas
No country on this planet is completely absent of stereotypes (though maybe Bhutan is close?). There are US citizens who believe anyone who isn’t Caucasian is genetically inferior. There are Koreans who treat homosexuality as an aberration or a disease. There are many cultures that still treat women as second-class citizens, or barely human.
Engaging with such individuals is never an easy task, but it is one worth taking on. Even sitting in a hostel bar and overhearing a sexist remark should make one feel compelled to step in and correct them; even if you’re the most skilled debater on the planet, they probably won’t change their minds right away, but as more and more people call them out for their outdated, destructive ideas, they will start to see they are part of a minority, and they can either get with the times, or let their ideas die with them.
4. Hearing the “wrong” price
While not exactly an assault, witnessing a scam can be a perfectly acceptable time to step in. It can be something small like hearing a tourist get overcharged for a taxi and informing him what the correct price should be, or preventing someone from stepping onto a bus known for its unusually accurate robberies. Hopefully you’re not the type of traveler to watch someone suffer and sadistically laugh or apathetically remark “well, they have to learn from their own mistakes” or “it has nothing to do with me.”
It has everything to do with all of us. Every time we allow someone to get conned by inaction, that is just more incentive for the scammer to keep it up. Always let others know what’s coming.