There’s no escaping the fact that the world is getting smaller: your company’s vendors might be in India, with customers in Britain, while you are somewhere in the U.S. That’s why employers, from international non-profits to the mom-and-pop stores down the road, want employees able to think globally. Even college admissions look positively on time spent abroad these days.
But picking up for a jaunt to another continent isn’t practical for most of us. We have families, jobs and commitments that mean we have to stay put, and travel isn’t often a cheap option. Despite your current location, however, you can cultivate a more global mindset, usually without spending much money.
Read international literature. Reading a book written by someone with a drastically different background can be instant exposure to a new culture. You can even do it for free — many public libraries make a point of offering books from different nations. Not sure where to start? Consider this list from three percent, the translation blog from the University of Rochester. Don’t stop with literature, either. Consider reading histories, biographies and other non-fiction that can introduce you to global ideas.
Look for local cultural groups. I use Meetup when I look for a group for anything — apparently there are 31 cultural groups within 20 miles of me, ranging from Japanese language to Brazilian dance. As a rule, these groups are more than welcoming to newcomers — including those with little to no knowledge of the culture in question.
Cook new recipes. It’s possible to try out a recipe for an unfamiliar dish without actually learning much about the culture that dish comes from, but I recommend going all at. Chose a recipe you’re not sure where to start with and head down to the local ethnic grocery store. As long as a store isn’t right in the middle of a rush, I’ve found that most storekeepers are more than willing to help me figure out ingredient lists, and give some extra tips to make sure the dish turns out right.
Volunteer. If you live in the U.S., the odds are pretty good that there is some sort of social agency in your town dedicated to helping immigrants adjust. Especially in smaller towns, churches and religious organizations often provide those programs and always need volunteers for various tasks, from teaching English to watching children. While you may spend quite a bit of time helping people to adjust to American culture, you will also have opportunities to see the differences between their backgrounds and the U.S., through their eyes.
Learn a language. Linguists say that you can’t really learn a language without picking up at least some of the culture, so picking up a new tongue can help with your worldview, as well as your resume. While it may not be the easiest task, it is cheap: sites like BBC Languages offer plenty of free resources and educational CDs and software are available at most public libraries.
Go to local festivals. Growing up in Colorado, one of my favorite fairs was the Scottish Festival and Highland Games. When I moved to Oklahoma, I switched my allegiance to the Greek Festival — better street food! Cultural festivals are chock full of new foods to try, performances to watch and experts who will educate you. Even Oktoberfests have a little bit of culture in there, somewhere.
Watch a foreign film. You don’t have to go to special film festivals or indie theaters to watch foreign films these days. There are plenty of DVD options from Netflix to Best Buy, although I’m often reluctant to purchase DVDs that I’m not sure if I’ll enjoy. However, there are also plenty of movies available online and for download — even YouTube has some options. You can also find lectures and documentaries, and even clips of TV shows from other countries.
Attend lectures. Many schools and other organizations open up lectures to the public, allowing people to get a glimpse into the lives of some very interesting people. Consider Greg Mortenson — he’s on a tour to promote Three Cups of Tea, a book about education in Central Asia. During his lectures, he discusses his experiences and how they have changed his point of view. Most of his lectures are entirely open to the public, although many venues do ask for a donation.
Find a pen pal. I’m not suggesting swapping letters — or, more likely emails and IMs — with just anyone, though. See if an overseas member of your company is willing to share their impressions with you, or find someone working in a similar position in an international company. LinkedIn and other social networks are an ideal place to start looking for these sorts of connections.
Consider your own background. How much do you know about where your family comes from and the reasons behind your traditions? Talking to your older relatives can provide insight into your roots, and may even help you to understand the whys of your own culture.
Don’t forget, though, that once you’ve developed your global worldview, you need to use it. Try to think of new perspectives for projects and consider how situations would play out in a culture with different expectations. You may not be able to change the world, but you can become aware of it. These insights can even improve your understanding of the mechanics of your own culture. I know my time in other cultures has helped me learn new ways to handle business situations.