Our words have power. The language we use has consequences.
As we learn about inclusivity and becoming a better ally, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the language we use when talking about travel. Travel should be a free and empowering act where anyone can feel safe, but that is simply not the case. By becoming aware of how we talk about travel and adjusting our words going forward, we can help marginalized populations feel safer and more included.
Changing the language of travel
Phrases I’m tired of hearing
“Why would anyone want to go there?”
Not every destination is for you, or will suit you. But when speaking about your travel preferences, looking down upon a destination because it isn’t where you specifically would want to go causes a ripple effect of shame. Someone who may have been looking forward to one day visiting the place in question is now feeling like it isn’t acceptable.
It’s fine to express your opinion, but do so in a way that doesn’t create a vortex of judgement on that particular destination. “I don’t think traveling there is for me, I’m really not one for crowds.” or “I’m more of a nature lover and big cities just aren’t my cup of tea.”
“I can’t believe you went to (chain)! What were you thinking?!”
How often have we named and shamed folks for visiting a McDonald’s while in Italy. Why? Does it make us better because when we were in Rome, we ate Italian dishes at restaurants that were definitely local?
See how that sounds? It creates a divide between someone who knows the “right” way to travel, and the other. And it also ignores the many, valid reasons for choosing a chain in the first place.
Seasoned travelers like to pretend like an international trip is no big deal, but let’s not forget… your first trip abroad is scary. No matter where it is or how long you’re gone, you are a fish out of water. It’s an unfamiliar environment, and it can be jarring. A chain restaurant can provide a sense of comfort and home, perhaps even leading the traveler to feel more confident exploring the area around them. You just never know, so don’t assume.
“It’s super cheap and authentic food!”
This topic was actually covered very well by Washington Post writer Tim Carman when he discussed his column’s former name, $20 Diner…
“Over the past 12 months, I have written about restaurants that specialize in Egyptian, Nepalese, Yemeni, Ethiopian, Indian, Thai, Jamaican, Korean, Persian, Philippine, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Peruvian, Cuban, Italian, Japanese and American cuisines. Notice anything conspicuously missing from that list?
I did not devote a single column last year to a French restaurant.
Why? Is it because French restaurants, even their informal bistro cousins, tend to have a higher price point than the $20 ceiling that I placed on entrees? Or is it because I, as a writer and critic, do not view French cuisine as affordable, no matter how casual the establishment? Whatever the reason, French cooking has cachet in the public imagination, and that translates into how much folks are willing to pay for it, which is, I suspect, more than many are willing to shell out for Mexican or Chinese food.”
Carman goes on to explain that by categorizing the above cuisines as “cheap eats,” it creates a value perception. This means that when (in Carman’s example) a high-class ramen restaurant opens its doors, no one is willing to pay $18 for a bowl. They wouldn’t hesitate, however, to fork over twice that amount for an Italian restaurant.
Additionally, the word “cheap” tends to imply “lack of quality.” I know that I have been guilty of using this word (and will be combing through past posts to replace it). Instead, use words like “affordable” or “inexpensive” that don’t necessarily suggest a drop in quality.
And let’s talk about the word “authentic.” I originally thought it was a good substitute word for “ethnic.” San Francisco Chronicle author Soleil Ho outlines the problems behind calling a restaurant “ethnic” in the first place…
“Who and what do we mean when we say “ethnic restaurants”? Do we mean Restaurant Jeanne d’Arc, which serves souffles and other traditional French foods? Or Bill’s Hamburgers, the Richmond neighborhood institution that specializes in that all-American delicacy? Odds are, that’s not it at all. We’re talking about pho shops, taquerias, Indian buffets and Jamaican grills, places that we associate with the lowbrow and with communities of color.”
I assumed that “authentic” could replace “ethnic” but as Ho explained, it still carries a shackle of nonsense with it. Are you sure that the owner or head chef wanted the food and atmosphere to feel authentic? And… authentic to what, exactly?
Ho doesn’t mention this, but I also feel like the word has a bit of classism embedded in it too. It implies that a seasoned traveler knows what the real deal is, as opposed to mere fakery. It’s kind of similar to chain restaurant shaming, if you think about it.
Admittedly, I’m no talent when it comes to describing food, thus I leaned on these adjectives. Clearly, it’s a weakness of my writing, and a sign of where I ought to improve.
Let’s keep learning
This is not an inclusive list. In fact, I’m hoping that with time, it’ll grow. I’ve made changes to words and phrases I’ve used in the past, and aim to be constantly improving to create a safer and more inclusive environment.
I’d like to hear from you now! How can we as bloggers and travelers amend our language and be kinder as a whole?
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