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6 Ways to Avoid Cultural Misunderstandings When Traveling Abroad

6 Ways to Avoid Cultural Misunderstandings When Traveling Abroad

If you’ve ever asked friends how their recent trip abroad was, only to be met with “Oh, the (Insert People Here) are SO RUDE,” you know that it’s easy to have your day ruined by a cultural misunderstanding when you’re abroad.If you’re paying thousands of dollars to travel somewhere, the last thing you want is to inadvertently make yourself miserable.

That’s why, whenever you’re traveling, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research before you go.

Here are six ways to avoid cultural misunderstandings when traveling abroad:

1 Learn a few words of the local language, including “Please,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “Excuse me.”

Even if you think you speak French comme une vache espagnole (like a Spanish cow), putting a bit of effort into saying a few words in the local language will go a long way, no matter where you go.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for tourists to assume that everyone speaks English, which isn’t always the case. While you may be staying in a tourist area, it’s unlikely that the hotel maid or the busboy can converse with you. Prefacing your request by asking if they speak English in the local language will help exponentially. If the staff does speak English, they don’t necessarily feel like they should *have* to—it’s their country, after all. Remember that their ability to speak English, even a bit, is a service that they’re providing to you to make your stay easier.

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If you make an effort to use a few local words, and to ask natives if they speak English before blurting out something, and they’ll appreciate your efforts, be more polite, and give you better service.

2 Read those pages on culture at the beginning of your travel guide, and do online research to see if the are any faux pas to avoid.

In every country and culture around the world, there are certain gestures and expressions that should be avoided in polite company; you don’t want to accidentally offend anyone by committing a massive cultural faux pas.

Before you go abroad, read about the customs in the country you’re visiting, and take note of any specific gestures or sayings to avoid. In Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, for example, you should avoid touching food with your left hand, which is typically used for personal hygiene. In North Africa, you’ll want to ensure that you never show the soles of your shoes to friends.

In France, not making eye contact when clinking wine glasses for “cheers” is considered rude (and condemns you to seven years of bad sex!), as is crossing over or under the arms of two other people who are clinking glasses. Take note that in Europe, if you put your left hand on your lap while you’re eating rather than on the table, people will suspect you’re up to something.

By doing a bit of reading beforehand, you can appear open-minded and make a good impression to your hosts.

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3 Try to respect and follow the advice that you read.

Even if you think a particular custom is ridiculous, sexist, racist, or worse, there are some situations where you should suck it up and follow it anyway. In some cases, the last thing you want to do is stand out like a foreigner.

If you’re going to a business meeting in China, for example, a woman will deeply offend her male Chinese colleagues if she gets on or off the elevator before them. And in many Middle Eastern countries, men and women don’t shake hands, even if they’re colleagues. If you’re trying to seal a business deal, though, these situations probably aren’t the right time to vehemently defend your feminist beliefs.

Similarly, out of respect for the locals, eat in private during the day if you’re visiting Malaysia during Ramadan, or expect to have a chat with police about what religion you are. Bring your marriage certificate if you want to rent a hotel room in Egypt, or get separate rooms if you’re not married. The hotel owner can face fines for allowing you to fraternize, and while you may think you have a “right” to do something, you won’t win any points by putting him in a difficult position.

Curse them out in your head, but smile and defer, and you’ll go a lot further towards making your stay a pleasant one with limited police encounters.

4 Keep your voice down in public.

Having lived outside of the US for several years, now, I can attest that groups of Americans tend to be louder and more rowdy than groups of people from other countries. Abroad, it’s easy to hear them from afar.

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Even if you don’t think you’re being loud, other cultures have different perceptions of an appropriate decibel level for a conversation, and you may find yourself being shushed by condescending locals while having a normal, indoor-voice conversation with friends.

Being sensitive to the amount of noise you make in public isn’t just about avoiding offending others—it’s also about not sticking out in a crowd.

A prevailing stereotype in much of the world (even in France) is that Americans are all rich, and if you’re a loud American who’s easy to spot, you can make yourself a target of theft without realizing it. Being aware of your surroundings and keeping in line with what locals are doing and how quietly they’re speaking in public places will help you avoid sticking out.

5 Smile and nod when appropriate, but not all the time.

Having lived abroad for several years, I’ve noticed that Americans are a very smiley bunch, but in many countries, where smiling is less common, it can be easily misinterpreted.

There’s a reason, for example, why Parisian women are considered cold.

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Smile at a French man too easily, and he’ll think you’re flirting with him. To him, a smile from a beautiful woman is an invitation to hit on her.

Of course, there are some situations where smiling is appropriate and encouraged. Smile at your waiter—even a bit flirtatiously—and try to speak a few words in the local language, and he may offer you a complimentary apéritif or taste of something else on the menu. If you smile while walking down the street, however, you might as well be wearing a sign that says, “Try to sell me stuff or scam me”, and the flower vendors and beggars will come like flies to honey.

6 Pay the “tourist tax” with pleasure.

In some developing countries, the price for certain items can differ based on whether you’re a local or a tourist. That’s just a fact of life.

While it’s true that such a disparity is bad for the local economy—why would a Moroccan cab driver want to serve the locals when he can earn ten times as much driving around tourists?—it’s hard to avoid paying extra unless you’re traveling with someone who knows the terrain. When traveling to places where negotiating is the norm and prices aren’t fixed, be aware that you’re probably paying much more than a local person would pay for everything you buy.

Negotiate down, and don’t buy something if it’s clearly not worth it, but don’t make a fuss.

If you can afford to be traveling abroad, your trip probably costs more than the locals make in several years. So pay up.

The most important thing to remember while traveling abroad is to have some common sense. Making an effort to be nice to locals, to be respectful of the city you’re visiting, and to try out the local language will get you a long way, and you’ll contribute to making the world a better place where people all over have a positive impression of American tourists.

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Allison Lounes

Allison is the CEO & Founder at Paris Unraveled. She blogs about learning and studying.

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Last Updated on September 28, 2020

The Pros and Cons of Working from Home

The Pros and Cons of Working from Home

At the start of the year, if you had asked anyone if they could do their work from home, many would have said no. They would have cited the need for team meetings, a place to be able to sit down and get on with their work, the camaraderie of the office, and being able to meet customers and clients face to face.

Almost ten months later, most of us have learned that we can do our work from home and in many ways, we have discovered working from home is a lot better than doing our work in a busy, bustling office environment where we are inundated with distractions and noise.

One of the things the 2020 pandemic has reminded us is we humans are incredibly adaptable. It is one of the strengths of our kind. Yet we have been unknowingly practicing this for years. When we move house we go through enormous upheaval.

When we change jobs, we not only change our work environment but we also change the surrounding people. Humans are adaptable and this adaptability gives us strength.

So, what are the pros and cons of working from home? Below I will share some things I have discovered since I made the change to being predominantly a person who works from home.

Pro #1: A More Relaxed Start to the Day

This one I love. When I had to be at a place of work in the past, I would always set my alarm to give me just enough time to make coffee, take a shower, and change. Mornings always felt like a rush.

Now, I can wake up a little later, make coffee and instead of rushing to get out of the door at a specific time, I can spend ten minutes writing in my journal, reviewing my plan for the day, and start the day in a more relaxed frame of mind.

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When you start the day in a relaxed state, you begin more positively. You find you have more clarity and more focus and you are not wasting energy worrying about whether you will be late.

Pro #2: More Quiet, Focused Time = Increased Productivity

One of the biggest difficulties of working in an office is the noise and distractions. If a colleague or boss can see you sat at your desk, you are more approachable. It is easier for them to ask you questions or engage you in meaningless conversations.

Working from home allows you to shut the door and get on with an hour or two of quiet focused work. If you close down your Slack and Email, you avoid the risk of being disturbed and it is amazing how much work you can get done.

An experiment conducted in 2012 found that working from home increased a person’s productivity by 13%, and more recent studies also find significant increases in productivity.[1]

When our productivity increases, the amount of time we need to perform our work decreases, and this means we can spend more time on activities that can bring us closer to our family and friends as well as improve our mental health.

Pro #3: More Control Over Your Day

Without bosses and colleagues watching over us all day, we have a lot more control over what we do. While some work will inevitably be more urgent than others, we still get a lot more choice about what we work on.

We also get more control over where we work. I remember when working in an office, we were given a fixed workstation. Some of these workstations were pleasant with a lot of natural sunlight, but other areas were less pleasant. It was often the luck of the draw whether we find ourselves in a good place to work or not.

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By working from home we can choose what work to work on and whether we want to face a window or not. We can get up and move to another place, and we can move from room to room. And if you have a garden, on nice days you could spend a few hours working outside.

Pro #4: You Get to Choose Your Office Environment

While many companies will provide you with a laptop or other equipment to do your work, others will give you an allowance to purchase your equipment. But with furniture such as your chair and desk, you have a lot of freedom.

I have seen a lot of amazing home working spaces with wonderful sets up—better chairs, laptop stands that make working from a laptop much more ergonomic and therefore, better for your neck.

You can also choose your wall art and the little nick-nacks on your desk or table. With all this freedom, you can create a very personal and excellent working environment that is a pleasure to work in. When you are happy doing your work, you will inevitably do better work.

Con #1: We Move a Lot Less

When we commute to a place of work, there is movement involved. Many people commute using public transport, which means walking to the bus stop or train station. Then, there is the movement at lunchtime when we go out to buy our lunch. Working in a place of work requires us to move more.

Unfortunately, working from home naturally causes us to move less and this means we are not burning as many calories as we need to.

Moving is essential to our health and if you are working from home you need to become much more aware of your movement. To ensure you are moving enough, make sure you take your lunch breaks. Get up from your desk and move. Go outside, if you can, and take a walk. And, of course, refrain from regular trips to the refrigerator.

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Con #2: Less Human Interaction

One of the nicest things about bringing a group of people together to work is the camaraderie and relationships that are built over time. Working from home takes us away from that human interaction and for many, this can cause a feeling of loss.

Humans are a social species—we need to be with other people. Without that connection, we start to feel lonely and that can lead to mental health issues.

Zoom and Microsoft Teams meeting cannot replace that interaction. Often, the interactions we get at our workplaces are spontaneous. But with video calls, there is nothing spontaneous—most of these calls are prearranged and that’s not spontaneous.

This lack of spontaneous interaction can also reduce a team’s ability to develop creative solutions—there’s just something about a group of incredibly creative people coming together in a room to thrash out ideas together that lends itself to creativity.

While video calls can be useful, they don’t match the connection between a group of people working on a solution together.

Con #3: The Cost of Buying Home Office Equipment

Not all companies are going to provide you with a nice allowance to buy expensive home office equipment. 100% remote companies such as Doist (the creators of Todoist and Twist) provide a $2,000 allowance to all their staff every two years to buy office equipment. Others are not so generous.

This can prove to be expensive for many people to create their ideal work-from-home workspace. Many people must make do with what they already have, and that could mean unsuitable chairs that damage backs and necks.

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For a future that will likely involve more flexible working arrangements, companies will need to support their staff in ways that will add additional costs to an already reduced bottom line.

Con #4: Unique Distractions

Not all people have the benefit of being able to afford childcare for young children, and this means they need to balance working and taking care of their kids.

For many parents, being able to go to a workplace gives them time away from the noise and demands of a young family, so they could get on with their work. Working from home removes this and can make doing video calls almost impossible.

To overcome this, where possible, you need to set some boundaries. I know this is not always possible, but it is something you need to try. You should do whatever you can to make sure you have some boundaries between your work life and home life.

Final Thoughts

Working from home can be hugely beneficial for many people, but it can also bring serious challenges to others.

We are moving towards a new way of working. Therefore, companies need to look at both the pros and cons of working from home and be prepared to support their staff in making this transition. It will not be impossible, but a lot of thought will need to go into it.

More About Working From Home

Featured photo credit: Standsome Worklifestyle via unsplash.com

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