Students, faculty, and staff studying or teaching overseas have a particular investment in learning to appreciate unfamiliar environments and to understand unfamiliar customs. Many times, travelers have the best of intentions but are simply not well-versed enough in their host culture history and social norms to sensitively navigate personal and professional interactions that fall outside a cultural comfort zone.
Rejecting “total” ethnocentrism, as well as “total” cultural relativism, in pursuit of a balanced self-awareness does not happen overnight. However, there are some easy tips that you can learn, remember, and follow while abroad that will help you navigate your host culture customs and norms, wherever you find yourself.
1. Prior to departure, familiarize yourself with the norms, customs, and laws of your host country. Don’t know where to start? Try visiting www.culturecrossing.net and select your destination from the drop-down menu in the upper left-hand corner of the website. Travel books and credible travel websites can also be useful tools.
2. There are many general behaviors that qualify as “culturally INsensitive,” regardless of where you study and/or travel. Pay attention to the following:
- DON’T assume that because a society has shopping malls, freeways, suburbs, a MacDonad’s, or other typically “Western” attributes, it automatically follows Western customs.
- DON’T speak loudly, especially at a historical site, near or in a house or place of worship, or on public transportation. Be observant and respectful of your surroundings.
- DON’T call excess attention to, or point at, sights or customs that are obviously different from what you would encounter at home. (Example: Yes, Asian toilets are different. No, it’s not okay to laugh and take pictures of it to post on Facebook.)
- DON’T make immediate value judgments when directly encountered with host/home differences.
- DON’T use hand gestures, particularly in a public place. Nonverbal communication is highly culture-specific, and the potential for misunderstandings is high.
- DON’T involve yourself in verbal arguments regarding host/home society norms and beliefs. Constructive discussion is important, but try not to be overly argumentative or defensive. Yes, people have very specific ideas about what America is and isn’t, but it’s not an assault on your personal identity. On the other hand, you may encounter customs in a host society that do not align with your personal moral or ethical standards. Engage in serious reflection on these topics with yourself and trusted friends.
- DON’T assume that everyone wants to be like Americans or live in the U.S. There is a general curiosity about U.S. culture, but most people you meet would not “trade passports with you”, even if they had the opportunity.
- DON’T be afraid to try the language. If someone approached you in the U.S. asking for something but refused to speak English, how eager would you be to help? A simple “hello” and “thank you” in your host language will go a long way, especially when you are trying to get something done.
3. Just as there are behaviors guaranteed to offend wherever you go, there are also generally appropriate ways to interact with your host country. Remember to do the following:
- DO dress, speak, and behave conservatively to avoid misunderstandings. In particular, U.S. standards of dress and language are not always appropriate in other cultural contexts.( For example, flip flops may not be appropriate to wear in public. Speaking loudly may be considered rude.)
- DO think before you act, and respect host country laws and customs. Not sure how to act? Follow the behavior of the locals, they’ll know what to do.
- DO realize that there is a difference between “drinking” and “public drunkeness.” Alcohol consumption is a cultural activity, and while drinking may be a social norm, but public drunkeness is not. Know the laws and customs that govern this social behavior and remember, you are a guest in a foreign country. (Besides, it’s not safe to be uninhibitied in an unfamiliar place.)
- DO consider the perspective of others, and try to account for their own cultural upbringing, particularly when encountering stereotypes about your home culture. Be the change you want to see and counter stereotypes with appropriate behavior and explanations rather than anger. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation in which you feel that you are a target, remove yourself immediately.
- DO listen to host country tour guides and locals with attention and respect. Engage in conversation and ask appropriate questions. You may be the ONLY personal impression they have of the United States.
- DO remember that showing gratitude and respect is universal. You do not have to know another language to show appreciation and respect. There are many forms of non-verbal communication, so get creative. (For example, gift giving is a common form of exchange that fosters friendship. Learn the gift-giving customs of your host culture right away to establish long-lasting relationships)