Traveling to a foreign country is one of life’s greatest privileges. As humans, we are lucky enough to have the ability to cross borders and experience different cultures for very little time and money.
Whether you are just visiting a foreign land or participating in a work exchange where you get to live and work in a particular area, cultural differences can have a huge influence on your time there.
It could be little things, like what time dinner is served or what is eaten for breakfast.
It could also be big things, like how women are treated or how seriously religion is taken.
It’s important to be expectant of cultural differences before-hand, so you don’t experience extreme culture shock when you arrive at your destination.
Here are five tips for making the most of the local culture, and seeing cultural differences as a positive rather than a negative.
5 ways to embrace cultural differences in your trip
1. Study the culture of your destination beforehand
Doing a little research on the country you’re going to is a great way to prepare yourself for traveling.
Just knowing simple facts about the country and how daily life is lived can help you integrate better into the society.
Look up useful, everyday tips, like how people greet each other, whether you should leave tips or not when eating out, and whether shoes should be removed in homes. These may seem like trivial things, but some cultures take these customs very seriously.
These may seem like trivial things, but some cultures take these customs very seriously. For example:
Many countries in Asia find it disrespectful if you don’t remove your shoes before entering a building.
Countries like the USA find it disrespectful if you don’t tip your waiters and bartenders.
The Mediterranean and Latin American countries consider a close embrace and kiss or two to be a normal greeting, whereas greetings in other countries may not involve touching at all.
Brushing up on these daily occurrences in a new country can make your first few days there go a bit more smoothly.
If you do no research at all, you risk being caught off guard, which can not only stress you out but it may offend some of the locals.
To make a good impression on others, and feel confident in yourself, try to study the local culture before you jump on the plane.
2. Converse with someone who has traveled there before
Take your preparation for travel a step further with direct conversation.
A great way to get an authentic feel for the culture is to get in contact with someone who has visited there before.
Browse through travel blogs, look up fun facts and photos, read books, or actually, have a conversation with someone who has spent time in your destination.
Talking to someone who traveled there, rather than someone who lives there, can be helpful because you’ll be having a similar experience.
Fellow travelers can give you an idea of the culture from a foreigners perspective, and give you advice on what to expect and how to handle it.
They can also give you specific tips about cool stuff to do in the area, and share some of their own stories with you to give you a sense of comfort about venturing off to a foreign land.
3. Respect the local culture
After researching the local customs and traditions, you must take your understanding to the next level.
Don’t just learn about all these cultural insights and then fail to engage with them and respect them.
There is a term in cultural studies called “egocentrism”, which means viewing your own culture as superior to others. While traveling, you must avoid being egocentric at all costs.
It’s pivotal to put your ego aside and understand that no culture is better or worse than another. Appreciate what makes the local culture different from your own, and understand that the locals there live that way for a reason.
Usually, the locals are happy and content with their way of life, so just observe and respect that rather than try to push your own ways on them.
It’s important to think of yourself as a visitor while traveling. When you venture to a new land, they already have their own cherished customs in place, and that is how life thrives there.
Your own culture and lifestyle may be different from how these people live, but you must have the mindset that you are there to learn.
Absorb their way of life, try to adapt, and always try to see the positive side of things.
4. Maintain good communication
An important way to show your respect for the culture is to communicate clearly and carefully with the locals.
This means approaching people in a friendly, non-threatening and non-judgmental way.
Some people are hesitant to open up to foreigners, so you must show that you are trustworthy. Having a positive attitude, always wearing a smile, and being patient will help your communication with the locals immensely.
Even if you prepare yourself and respect the culture, sometimes things can go wrong and you may feel stressed, upset or angry.
If your bus is late, or if someone tries to rip you off when shopping at a market, or if you’re lost and no one can give you the right directions, try to avoid acting irrationally in a moment of panic.
Speak to others slowly and clearly, and remember that not everyone speaks English. If you don’t speak the language, use gestures and hand signals as best as you can.
In your pre-trip preparation, it may be helpful to try and learn some words in the local language or buy a dictionary to take with you.
If you are choosing to work in a different country, this tip of good communication always applies to your bosses, co-workers, or host families.
The people you live and work with are willing to accept you into their lives and help you have a wonderful experience, so always maintain consistent communication and positivity with them.
This will result in a better relationship and a more enjoyable time living abroad.
5. Have empathy
To take this positivity with the locals further, try to have a sense of empathy with them. This means being able to put yourself in their shoes and relate to their emotions.
You’ll find that no matter where you are in the world, people are all the same underneath the surface. Regardless of skin color, clothing, religion, occupation, social class, sexual orientation, or any other trait, all people feel the same emotions and want to be happy in life.
Recognizing this common connection between people can help you relate to them and feel a sense of community even if you're thousands of miles from home.
Sharing a smile, a laugh, a hug, a meal, a dance, or any human experience with others halfway across the world is an incredibly beautiful moment.
The bonds that people can create even if they look completely different and live differently can be so strong, and this is why people love traveling.
With this sense of community, you’ll have a more enriching experience while traveling or working and living abroad.