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 27-year-old from the Boston area who works as a content marketing manager, 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.

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

Courtesy @sarahashleyarcher

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 @sarahashleyarcher

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,…

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