Being culturally sensitive

Things to Consider

Visiting a new country and experiencing a new culture is much different from what you are used to back home – different language, customs and clothing being the most obvious. The most important thing is to remain open to the experience and seek to learn from it.

Remember that you are a guest in Guatemala and in the communities that you visit. Be humble, show gratitude, and enjoy the experience for what it is, without comparing it to what you are used to back home. Learning a few key phrases or words such as “hello, goodbye, where’s the restroom, please and thank you” can take you a long way and is a useful way to gain respect from the locals.

The roles of men and women may be different than what you are used to. Don’t make any assumptions or judgments, but do your research. This does not mean that you should fulfill the traditional male/female roles, but you should be aware of what to expect and of how your differences might be seen.

Likewise, it’s always good to be aware of gestures that might be considered inappropriate or insulting.  For example, what is commonly used as the “peace” sign in the United States, when presented with the palm facing inwards is offensive in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.  Similarly, the “thumbs up” gesture has a vulgar meaning in parts of Latin America.


A negative aspect of tourism is the creation of an economy dependent on tourists. Giving money or gifts to individuals on the street does not help solve overall economic problems. For example, in a case where you might feel moved to give a child on the street money or a trinket or chewing gum, you may then find yourself immediately surrounded by other children asking for a similar thing. It is impossible to fulfill each person’s needs in this manner. Please take these items into consideration:

  • You are the gift
    • Give of yourself: teach and share about your culture, family, and hobbies.
  • What can I bring/do?
    • Sometimes people pack clothes they can wear during the trip and donate to community members after. This also creates extra space for souvenirs for the trip home. You will be personally responsible for packing such items
  • What should I not bring?
    • Please do not bring any candy. Kids in Guatemala already eat a lot of candy, and they lack dental services or awareness of how to look after their teeth, so tooth decay is common.
    • Please do not bring cheap plastic toys that are made in China. While kids may appreciate such toys, we are trying to raise consciousness around the use of plastic across the world, and to minimize harmful pollution caused by shipping things thousands of miles.
  • Can I bring school supplies?
    • Please purchase school supplies in Guatemala rather than at home, so that we can help the local economy.
    • You may bring elementary reading level books, but remember you must pack them in your own suitcase. Books in Spanish are much more useful than books in English.
  • When can I gift?
    • Please do not give gifts without asking the trip leader. Please inform the trip leader at the beginning of your trip that you have gifts that you would like to give to the community. We will let you know when and how it would be appropriate to offer your gifts.
  • Ask yourself, “What can I gift to the community that is not tangible?”
    • Consider an intangible gift you can leave with the children.
    • You can teach them a song, paint with them, teach them a magic trick, play soccer with them, etc.


  • Though in many countries stopping and snapping a photo of anything or anyone may seem a normal occurrence, many small communities around the world are not yet as comfortable with this modern technology.
  • In parts of Guatemala, it is believed that taking a photo steals the soul of the person being photographed, and people are quick to anger if you try to take pictures of them or their children.
  • However, the communities we work with have no problem being photographed: there is no need to ask before taking photos in these communities. Kids especially enjoy being photographed. Show them the photo after you’ve taken it – they will get a thrill out of seeing it!