These days, it is common for hotel brands to produce original content. Mammoth hotel chains from Hilton to Best Western to InterContinental, as well as hip boutique brands such as Ace Hotel and Art Series Hotels, all have their own dedicated blogs where they regularly publish posts. As any hotel marketer worth his or her salt will tell you, once you hit publish on that blog post, there is no going back. This is the internet, after all, and deleting a post from your hotel blog doesn’t mean it is really gone. Which means that whatever is written there – whether it was penned by an in-house team member who knows the brand inside out or a first-time freelance contributor who is less attuned to your brand values – is going to be forever associated with your hotel brand.
Which brings us to the issue at hand: cultural sensitivity. Cultural sensitivity and awareness is a topic that is all-too-often overlooked in travel content, particularly when it comes to depictions of other cultures. Mariellen Ward of the Breathedreamgo travel blog has discussed the dangers of cultural imperialism (or the belief that your way of life is better) in travel writing, while photographer Bani Amor has criticised colonialism in travel literature.
When writing about location, ethnicity and society, complicated politics come into play. Although there is no one-size-fits-all phrasebook to help hotel content creators avoid all controversy, there are helpful tricks for traversing this tricky terrain.
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If you or one of your writers is attempting to capture a culture they are unfamiliar with, tell them to look beyond the interesting titbits they may hear on the regular tourist trail. Of course, these may be important bits of information, but it is essential to contextualise them with a wider body of literature. Have them search out accounts by the best and brightest writers the country or place has to offer, in order to gain a deeper insight into its mores, and advise them to speak with locals to find out what life is really like for them. Have them look at anthropological accounts of the society to understand practices they might find unusual. Readers appreciate when writers clearly comprehend a culture, so ensure your hotel’s writers do their research.
While a good travel writer needs a keen awareness of the history and society of the culture they are addressing, they also need to possess the faculty to examine their own. Are you writing about a culture once colonised by your own? Is your writing at risk of being tainted by a ham-fisted Hollywood film about the place? Scenarios that shape your narrative can lurk in the subconscious. You must be aware of influences on your world view, historical or contemporary, and how they can impact upon your work. A self-reflexive approach will help you keep any ill-informed assumptions at bay.
Throughout history, different groups of people have been called different things by both themselves and others. However, terms that might not even be meant to offend can still cause anguish in certain communities. Look at the case of the Washington Redskins, an American Football team. People of the Oneida Indian Nation campaigned for the name to be changed, seeing it as an insult. The team argued that they had opted for the name to ‘honour’ Native Americans. While this example is not from the world of travel writing, it highlights how unwittingly offensive people can be when they do not use the preferred terminology of other societies when referring to them. Make sure you are always using respectful language by consulting official tribal or national sources on terminology.
To explain this point, I am going to focus on one word: ‘Exotic.’ It connotes the unusual, the exciting. It lingers on the tongue like a tasty dish from a foreign land. It lies there, enticingly, as you try to explain the culture of another country. Soon, everything is labelled exotic in your copy; the people, the food, the animals, the plants. Yet, it is arguably a blanket term for peoples from backgrounds that differ from whatever is typical in the writer’s society. In effect, it is entirely subjective, meaning different things to different people. Instead, why not explain the nuances of the culture you are writing about in a way that is both faithful to its people and objective, rather than subjective.
Developing your sense of cultural sensitivity is vitally important for anyone who writes or produces travel content. So take the time to find out more about the cultures you are covering in your hotel blog; not only will your content improve but you may just learn a little something too.