Travel shaming — another plague of 2020

(CNN) — For many people, travel these days is fraught with second-guessing, extra research and plenty of confusion by way of logistics, travel restrictions and safety — and that’s before you add in what everyone else has to say about your decisions.

Travelers who choose to share what they’re getting up to on vacation right now may find themselves beset with a case of 2020’s latest plague: travel shaming.

For Sarah Archer, a digital nomad from the Boston area, travel shaming gave her “a pit in my stomach” during recent travels in Europe — and even served to shape some of her behaviors.

“I have a boyfriend in Switzerland, so I was trying to figure out a way into Europe. It was difficult with a US passport,” she said in a phone call with CNN.

Serbia, not yet part of the European Union, had reopened to travelers, including Americans, in late May. So Archer decided to fly there on July 10 to meet her boyfriend, who flew in from Switzerland.

Soon after Archer arrived in Serbia, Croatia opened up to US passport holders, so the couple rented a car and drove across the border. From there, since Croatia had been removed from the list of risk countries for entering Switzerland, Archer was able to fly to Zurich with her boyfriend on August 1, after the Swiss government confirmed she could enter the country.

Archer said she is doing her best throughout her travels to do everything safely and legally. She wrote a Medium article about how she managed to enter Europe and shared posts on her Instagram account — where she knows all of her followers — and was surprised to receive direct messages from a few friends asking whether she really needed to be traveling right now.

“They asked me if it didn’t seem irresponsible and selfish to travel at this time,” she said. “I asked myself: ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ You question yourself.”

American Sarah Archer, right, and her boyfriend, Christian, reunited in Europe in July.

Courtesy Sarah Archer

The irony, said Archer, is that most people around her in Serbia and Croatia and even now, in Bern, Switzerland, where she’s settled in with her boyfriend for a few months, aren’t wearing masks on the streets or even in grocery stores.

But she credits the shaming she felt on social media, in part, for influencing her and her boyfriend to wear masks whenever they’re out in public now — even when they’re often among the only people doing so.

“It’s really as if things are normal in Switzerland now,” says Archer. “But coming from the US and knowing how this has affected people personally makes me more cognizant. As a long-term traveler and being on social media while in these countries, too, I feel responsibility not to get (the virus) and not to spread it.”

Archer isn’t alone in questioning her travel choices and modifying her behavior because of social media shaming. But the reasons people feel ashamed — or don’t — and the motivations for shaming, it turns out, are evolving as fluidly as the pandemic itself.

Sarah Archer, pictured in Split, Croatia, says friends have questioned her decision to travel.

Sarah Archer, pictured in Split, Croatia, says friends have questioned her decision to travel.

Courtesy Sarah Archer

How effective is social media shaming?

“You see upticks in shaming when people are desperate to get everyone to adhere to some norm, and when there’s unlikely to be any enforcement of that norm through official channels,” says Krista Thomason, a Swarthmore College associate professor of philosophy and author of “Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life.”

And when it comes to travel shaming during the pandemic, Thomason says, there may be other emotions and impetuses beyond health risks that lead social media users to shame people.

“Many people canceled vacations or canceled trips to see their loved ones. When they see others enjoying nonessential travel, they may be angry, envious and feel that it’s not fair,” says Thomason. “People feel like they’ve given up things that are important to them, so they’ll naturally be upset to see that others haven’t done the same.”

And while the evidence for the effectiveness of shaming is mixed, says Thomason, it does work in some cases.

“If I take a picture of a crowded beach and post it on social media, there’s no guarantee that anyone in the picture will even know they’ve been shamed,” she says.

“Now, if I share a photo of my recent vacation and people shame me for my nonessential travel, I might come to realize my mistake,” she adds. “But I might just as easily get angry that these people are trying to tell me how to live my life.”

A recent trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, wasn't exactly what traveler Mosaka Williamson hoped it would be.

A recent trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, wasn’t exactly what traveler Mosaka Williamson hoped it would be.

Courtesy Mosaka Williamson

Sometimes you’re the one doing the shaming

Even when the shaming isn’t coming from other people, some travelers feel ashamed or guilty about their choices — in effect, shaming themselves.

That was the case for Mosaka Williamson, a 30-something writer who, since March, had weathered the pandemic mostly alone, holed up in her New York City apartment.

“I’d been locked in my apartment, on Zoom and on the phone, pretty much the whole time,” she says. “I reached the point where I just needed to go somewhere.”

After much deliberation and research into which states she could visit without having to quarantine for 14 days upon returning to the city, Williamson and her husband, who had spent much of lockdown in upstate New York, decided to spend a few days in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in August.

But the getaway wasn’t quite as restorative as she’d hoped.

“It was like a vacation in a hospital, I was always on guard, always washing my hands,” she says. “If my husband went to eat a French fry after touching a door, I was like, ‘No! Don’t do that!'”

When Williamson entered the hotel pool — after waiting her turn in a queue of people waiting to do the same (a measure of precaution taken by the hotel to avoid overcrowding) — she says she walked to the middle, turned around and exited almost immediately.

The pool wasn’t crowded. But she was feeling self-conscious, she says, since she was the only one in the water wearing a mask.

“I’d seen photos on the Internet of crowded pools and beaches and was like, ‘Shame on those people,’ ” she says. “Then here I was in the same situation. The photos I did post from Atlantic City, I didn’t want to show people in them because most people weren’t wearing masks and I didn’t want to be associated with them.”

Blogger Lee Abbamonte has been posting stunning shots like this one, of Snow Canyon State Park in Utah, since he started traveling again.

Blogger Lee Abbamonte has been posting stunning shots like this one, of Snow Canyon State Park in Utah, since he started traveling again.

Courtesy @LeeAbbamonte

Not everyone who travels now fears shaming

For people such as Lee Abbamonte, a travel expert and blogger who has visited every country in the world and makes a living bringing his followers along, attempts at social media shaming may prove feeble.

“I’m past the point in my life of caring,” says Abbamonte, who just turned 42. “Aside from the fact that travel is my life, my passion and my job, I do it safely and responsibly and do the testing.”

Abbamonte says he didn’t leave his apartment for nearly 80 days during the pandemic, except for essential errands. At the end of May, he flew to Las Vegas to “play golf, get into the mountains and basically do outdoor activities where I could be distanced from others.”

Over the course of his two-week trip, he shared photos with his 68,000 Instagram followers of himself playing golf in front of the Wynn Las Vegas, the incredible scenery around Snow Canyon State Park in southern Utah and other envy-inducing views.

“It was the best thing I could’ve done for my mental health,” according to Abbamonte, who has traveled around the US several times since and recently returned from Mexico.

“Everyone was happy to see me traveling again, it kind of gave them hope,” says Abbamonte, adding that he has yet to be shamed for any of his travels this summer.

Abbamonte has been golfing and enjoying the outdoors on his travels and he's not ashamed to say so.

Abbamonte has been golfing and enjoying the outdoors on his travels and he’s not ashamed to say so.

Courtesy @LeeAbbamonte

A lack of norms causes confusion

Michael Trager of Las Vegas casino and travel website TravelZork, however, had a different social media response from some followers when he traveled from his home in London to Las Vegas in June to report for his website about the reopening of Las Vegas casinos.

“Every time I tweeted, somebody in the UK would say something like ‘You know you have to go to quarantine when you come back.’ There was almost an implication that I wouldn’t.”

“People want to remind you about the rules with the implication that they don’t believe you’re going to do it,” says Trager about his experiences with social media shaming.

According to Thomason, confusion around rules and norms — including as they relate to travel and what many of us are experiencing during the pandemic — can affect both how people shame on social media as well as how effective that shaming is.

“Part of the issue with shaming is it involves communal norms,” says Thomason. “So if you get to this point where you’re trying to hold this person up as an example of bad behavior, once you get to the point where it’s not clear what the communal norms are anymore, it’s a little harder for shame to get some purchase.”

Trager, who is a US citizen, says he knew he was doing everything right — from traveling legally and safely from the UK to the US to quarantining on his return home to the UK, as rules mandated — but he still felt shamed.

“The differentiation now is that you’re allowed to travel,” he says. “So the question becomes, if you’re allowed to travel, why can’t you share the way you regularly would be sharing?”

“As long as you’re following the rules, you shouldn’t have to feel self-conscious about it,” he says. “But I know people are, because I definitely was.”

Michael Trager visited Vegas in June to report on casino reopenings for his site TravelZork. He received a lot of reminders online about quarantining upon his return.

Michael Trager visited Vegas in June to report on casino reopenings for his site TravelZork. He received a lot of reminders online about quarantining upon his return.

Courtesy Michael Trager/TravelZork

Can posting about travel right now serve a useful purpose?

Loyalty points and travel expert Gary Leff of View from the Wing said in an August column that travel shaming has “dropped substantially compared to late March and April,” but that people continue to fear posting on sites such as Instagram because of potential backlash.

“If you say you’ve gone somewhere, there will still be critics. But it’s not as loud and universal as certainly it was in April and, to some extent, in May,” Leff says he’s observed.

“If we’re living with it (the virus), we’re going to continue to live with it,” he says. “And that includes some acceptance of travel — although not universal acceptance.”

Leff says that posting on social media can serve to ready people who may not be traveling right now for what they can expect when they do decide to venture out into the world.

“If we’re ever going to get back to normal or establish how the new normal looks like, it’s going to be by seeing how people live,” he says. “Our online lives are substituting for being in-person. So online sharing becomes more important rather than less in the current environment.”

Sharing on social media, says Leff — who hasn’t traveled since March but says that when he does again he will be sharing his experience — can even be “part of the recovery process.”

“It’s not just flipping a light switch,” he says. “People are changing their behaviors, their frame of reference.”

“The mechanism of how that happens is seeing what other people will do and forming your own judgment about it,” he says.

Mosaka Williamson says her trip to Atlantic City was uncomfortable in part because she didn't know what to expect.

Mosaka Williamson says her trip to Atlantic City was uncomfortable in part because she didn’t know what to expect.

Courtesy Mosaka Williamson

Williamson — who is considering an upcoming trip to St. Martin with her mother but is still very much on the fence regarding whether she will purchase the flight and go — says that part of what made her experience in Atlantic City so uncomfortable is that she didn’t know what to expect.

When it comes to posting on social media, she says she would “feel more comfortable posting about all the obstacles I face going there because that’s at least more informative than bragging about being on a beach in St. Martin.”

“I’m going to wear two masks, goggles and gloves on the plane. I’m going to look crazy, and I don’t care,” says Williamson.

And for anyone who might feel inclined to shame her — or anyone else posting the reality of what travel looks like these days — you may want to reconsider.

“When the stakes feel high, people feel justified in shaming and they feel justified in being harsh with their shaming,” says Thomason. “You’ll often hear people say, ‘This is the only way we can get people to behave.’ ”

“But just because something is effective, that doesn’t make it morally right,” she says.

As parts of the world cautiously open up, it’s ultimately up to you how you choose to venture forth — and how much you choose to let the chorus of critics affect you once you get there, too.


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