Interacting with the locals of other countries can be intimidating. Aside from the limits of language, there are different social rules and ideas that can make for some confusing and awkward situations. We may want to avoid interacting with locals to avoid embarrassing ourselves and offending anyone, but it’s the people that make the country what it is! There will always be things that challenge our comfort level (like say, wearing nothing but a layer of Himban ojitze?).
While it’s natural to have some reservations in eating roasted hog heads and stripping down naked, we can definitely make some little shifts in our thinking to help us embrace – even cherish – each and every moment of our travels. I know a thing or two about this thanks to being married to an amazing African man and his family (yes, I’m quite literally married to his entire family). Culture is a part of my everyday experience, and I’ve developed a basic outlook that has come to serve me quite well when I’m faced with a different perspective on things.
Culture 101: 3 Tips To Avoid The Embarrassment Of Culture Clash
1. Be Aware
We all know the saying, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” As cliche as it may be, it’s still great advice. Go “Roman” by paying extra attention to what everyone else is doing (and not doing). Flashing a thumbs up or patting someone’s head serve as nice gestures here in America, but do it in another country and you may be committing some serious cultural offenses.
Look for clues in your surroundings to see if you can determine themes to aid your cultural decoding. If you see everyone eating with their right hand, take that to mean the left hand (aka the “cleaner-upper”) is off limits until further notice. And while you’re looking for cues in your surroundings, make sure to pay special attention to the people who call the country home. They’re living, breathing examples of the beliefs you’re now immersed in, and they’ll be your greatest teachers. Take note of their behaviors and interactions so you can see common themes and develop quick cheats to avoiding surprising blunders.
I’ve learned this the hard way (and more than once). The first time was when I playfully swapped the butt of my dear sweet Thai friend. I expected her to turn around with a jolly laugh, but instead I was greeted by a fierce look that screamed, “How dare you!” Years later I embarrassed myself yet again, this time with my African Mother-in-law, by making a giggly remark about our 4 month old cousin’s big wobbly head.
My behavior in both these situations seemed perfectly harmless and simple to me and my own American friends, but I was coming from a completely different perspective. Had I paid more attention to social situations, I would have noted the lack of touch between Thai’s and the good intentions behind everything my African family ever said. I hadn’t so much as seen my Thai friends even nudge each other, nor did I ever hear my African family make the common American “comments” or judgements that can lead to rifts in relationships. Had I noted this contrast between cultures, I could have saved myself the embarrassment of misunderstanding.
2. Show Respect With An Open-Mind
Always, always, always show respect. This idea may seem like a no-brainer, but the definition of respect in America doesn’t have half the details or complexity of other countries. Whatever the situation may be, have an open mind and keep your focus on getting the most out of the present experience. It’s easy for us to get caught up in thinking about ourselves and how we don’t dance, or hold hands, or eat GMO white rice and fermented eggs. Dress and eat however you want at home, but your preferences are going to look pretty ridiculous to those who live this way every day of their lives.
Many countries have a long and intricate history of deep beliefs, values, and traditions passed from the most ancient of ancestors. It stands to reason that there’s a good reason behind people doing what they do. While we don’t have to agree with their ideas, we do need to acknowledge that they have significance.
The one thing I try to remember above all else is that my definitions are not universal; they’re limited to my experience. Take funerals for instance. Here you can expect it to take a few hours of your day with zero expense, but that’s not the case in Africa. In my husband’s country, a funeral is the largest celebration a family will ever have. Days of food, drinks, and music are available to everyone (no invite necessary), and families will spend tens of thousands of dollars in memory of their loved one. This is nothing like a funeral I’ve ever experienced.
When my husband’s grandmother passed just two months into our relationship, I experienced an all-night telethon of phone calls between Africa and America to document the “main event,” plus a midnight dinner. My initial feelings were annoyance followed up with “Okay then…” I couldn’t comprehend the intensity of this family bond with my own experience, but over time, my annoyance transformed into awe and appreciation. The commitment, generosity, and pure intentions of these family bonds produce some incredible things, and this new cultural perspective has benefited me in ways I couldn’t even express. All my life-changing lessons wouldn’t have been possible without having an open-mind. And it’s because I was open and showed respect that people have shared with me what I now know.
3. Be Happy
It’s too easy to get washed up with confusion and skepticism when we’re exposed to new and different ways of life. The foods, lifestyle, and traditions can be a complete 360 compared to anything else we’ve ever experienced, and it can really shake up beliefs that we didn’t even know we had.
As confusing and awkward as this can be sometimes, there’s one thing that never steers me wrong; being happy. The moment I get skeptical is the moment I risk sucking the fun out of everything (for me and for everyone else). Having an open mind and showing respect can be easier said than done sometimes, but keep your focus on being happy and making others happy and you’ll hardly go wrong. Don’t be afraid to contribute a little fun and happiness to your environment. I’ve seen that’s it’s the small things within everyday interactions that create the greatest of relationships and experiences. So, don’t worry. Be happy!
There’s A LOT to the complexity of values and ideas that compose a culture, and no one can expect to get it all in a matter of weeks (I’m years in and still learning). Many of the lessons and insights I’ve gained from my experiences usually hit me well after the event is said and done, and that’s why it’s so important to make the most of everything. So, brush off the confusion and throw out the fear of embarrassment. Focus on enjoying the moment before you and you’ll have memories that will last a lifetime.
This guest post was written by Ash Stevens. Ash is a mother, writer, and a wannabe shaman. She loves health, gardening, simplicity, culture, chocolate, and sarcasm. If she isn’t writing or pondering up multicultural cheats to happiness on her blog, then she’s surely playing badminton with the kids. Find her on Twitter or Facebook and make a new friend!